More people are disabled by chronic pain than by diabetes, heart disease and cancer put together. An estimated 27% of US women and 29% of men) suffer from debilitating pain, yet the problem remains vastly undertreated. Pain medications do not always bring sufficient relief-plus they can lead to side effects and/or addiction.
The good news: Like everything in your body, pain is affected by the workings of your mind. No matter what the cause of your pain, you can harness the power of your brain to reduce your suffering. Here's how…
Your limbic system, the more primitive part of your higher brain centers, controls your involuntary nervous system and emotions. Pain activates the limbic system, triggering the fight-or-flight response. As stress hormones are released, your heart beats faster, blood pressure soars, muscles tense...and various emotions are sparked, including anxiety, panic, anger and sadness. Normally, these responses are temporary—but with chronic pain, the stress of these intense reactions creates a downward spiral.
Example: The pain of chronic arthritis provokes a continuous release of stress hormones, leading to headaches and insomnia that exacerbate discomfort. As your body weakens, it produces fewer mood-boosting endorphins. Soon you're too tired and despondent to socialize, and the resulting isolation only makes you feel worse.
Helpful: If you learn to cultivate a sense of distance from your pain, you can mute the limbic system's response, reducing physical pain signals and easing the accompanying emotional suffering.
At least twice a day, go somewhere quiet and safe where you won't be disturbed...sit or lie in whatever position is most comfortable...and practice one or more of the techniques below for five to 15 minutes.
Pain can take your breath away, triggering a pattern of shallow breathing that increases muscle tension and deprives cells of oxygen. Deep breathing-especially when combined with a meditative focus-helps by relaxing muscles, stimulating endorphins and reducing emotional distress.
Remember: For both of the deep breathing techniques below, inhale slowly through your nose and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Clear your mind, and focus only on your breath. If other thoughts intrude, let them float away and refocus on your breath.
- Flare-control breath. This is particularly effective for pain flare-ups. As you inhale, notice your lungs filling with the vitality of your breath. Imagine your breath flowing to the area of your pain, bringing healing energy to this spot. As you exhale, imagine the pain flowing out of your body along with your breath.
- Purifying breath. This is especially helpful for easing troubling emotions that accompany pain. Picture your body surrounded by pure, white light.
Inhaling: Imagine this light being drawn into your lungs and then spreading until your whole body glows with healing light.
Exhaling: Picture a dark essence-representing fear, anger and sorrow-being expelled with your breath, leaving your body pain-free and your mind at ease.
The guided imagery method quiets the nervous system by convincing your mind that it does not feel pain. Close your eyes and imagine either of these...
- A place of peace. Picture yourself in an ideal setting of your choosing-a favorite vacation spot, a mountaintop, a lush garden, a tranquil lake. Immerse yourself in this scene by imagining what you see (majestic trees, an azure sky)...feel (a soft breeze, the warm sun)... smell (a campfire, fresh lilacs)...hear (singing birds, rustling leaves)...and taste (the salty sea, a perfect strawberry). The more details you can conjure up, the more effective the imagery is.
- Soothing hues. Take a few deep breaths, then focus on your pain. Note its location and intensity...describe its qualities (aching, throbbing, burning). Think of a color that represents pain (black, purple, hot pink), and imagine that your painful area is suffused with that color. Now choose a healing hue (such as white, silver or pale blue), and imagine that it has the power to dissolve your pain. Visualize the healing color pouring onto the painful area and spreading out wider and wider, until the painful color completely disappears. In your mind's eye, let that healing color continue to pour out for as long as you want-you have an unlimited supply.
Like acupuncture, acupressure is based on a principle of traditional Chinese medicine—that chi (energy) flows throughout the body along invisible channels called meridians, and that pain occurs when the chi becomes blocked or unbalanced. In terms of conventional Western medicine, the firm pressure applied during acupressure is thought to distract the nervous system, halting pain messages from traveling up the spinal cord to the brain.
The following techniques are particularly good for head, neck and shoulder pain, but they also ease the tension that pain elsewhere in the body can trigger in the neck area. Do each technique for several minutes per side.
- Catwalk. With your right hand, feel along the top of your left shoulder for any tender, tight or tense spot...then massage that area by "walking your index, middle and ring fingers along it (like a cat kneading with its paws). Do this repeatedly and quickly-each finger press should last only about half a second. Repeat on the other side.
- Thumb press. Place your right hand behind your head, palm facing you and thumb pointing downward. With the pad of your thumb, press firmly into the base of your skull, working all the way across the right side and paying extra attention to any tight or tender spots. Repeat on the other side.
Certain scents can invigorate you when pain saps your energy...or calm you when pain leaves you tense or anxious. Aromatherapy also distracts your attention from pain and may relax muscles. Add a few drops of essential oil to a hot bath or sprinkle a few drops on a handkerchief that you hold near your nose (do not apply essential oil directly to skin).
Or: Smooth a scented lotion into your skin, especially on painful areas.
- Invigorating scents. Try cedar...eucalyptus...or peppermint this one also eases the nausea that can accompany pain).
- Calming scents. Try bergamot...geranium...lavender...rose...or sandalwood.
Mirror Therapy Blocks Phantom Pain
Patients often experience phantom pain after the amputation of a limb.
New therapy: Patients look at a mirror reflection of the healthy limb (the one not being amputated) prior to surgery, which tricks the brain into thinking that the damaged limb is still there and functioning properly.
Cupping Eases Pain
Carpal tunnel syndrome involves irritation of a nerve running from forearm to hand, causing arm pain and finger numbness. With wet cupping, a practitioner makes small skin punctures, then applies heated glass cups to create suction.
Study: Among carpal tunnel patients, those who underwent cupping on the neck and shoulders reported significantly more improvement than those treated with heating pads.
Theory: Cupping stimulates blood and lymph flow, improving nerve function.
Referrals to practitioners: American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, 866-455-7999, www.aaaomonline.org.