Clinicians who specialize in treating chronic pain now recognize that it is not merely a sensation, like vision or touch, but rather chronic pain is strongly influenced by the ways in which the brain processes the pain signals.
Chronic pain can provoke emotional reactions, such as fear or even terror, depending on what we believe about the pain signals. In other cases (such as in sports or another engaging, rewarding activity), chronic pain may be perceived by the individual as merely a nuisance, a feeling to be overcome in order to be able to continue in the activity.
The important role the mind plays in chronic pain is clearly recognized in the medical literature, as well as in the International Association for the Study of Pain’s definition of pain, which states that pain is always subjective and is defined by the person who experiences it.
The corollary is that the brain can also learn how to manage the sensation of pain. Using the mind to control chronic pain, or coping strategies, for managing persistent pain, may be used alone or in tandem with other pain management therapies.
Ideally, use of the chronic pain management techniques outlined in this article can help patients feel less dependent on pain killers and feel more empowered to be able to control their pain.
Managing Chronic Pain
Of course, the first step in coping with chronic back pain or other types of persistent pain is to receive a thorough medical evaluation to determine the cause of the pain.
- In some situations, such as a herniated disc in the spine, it may be important to pay attention to the level and type of pain so that it can serve as a warning signal of impending damage.
- In other cases, especially when the back pain is chronic and the health condition unchangeable, one goal can be to try and keep the chronic pain from being the entire focus of one’s life.
Whatever the medical condition, there are a number of effective strategies for coping with chronic back pain. These techniques generally include:
- Relaxation training: Relaxation involves concentration and slow, deep breathing to release tension from muscles and relieve pain. Learning to relax takes practice, but relaxation training can focus attention away from pain and release tension from all muscles. Relaxation tapes are widely available to help you learn these skills.
- Biofeedback: Biofeedback is taught by a professional who uses special machines to help you learn to control bodily functions, such as heart rate and muscle tension. As you learn to release muscle tension, the machine immediately indicates success. Biofeedback can be used to reinforce relaxation training. Once the technique is mastered, it can be practiced without the use of the machine.
- Visual imagery and distraction: Imagery involves concentrating on mental pictures of pleasant scenes or events or mentally repeating positive words or phrases to reduce pain. Tapes are also available to help you learn visual imagery skills.
Distraction techniques focus your attention away from negative or painful images to positive mental thoughts. This may include activities as simple as watching television or a favorite movie, reading a book or listening to a book on tape, listening to music, or talking to a friend.
- Hypnosis: Hypnosis can be used in two ways to reduce your perception of pain. Some people are hypnotized by a therapist and given a post-hypnotic suggestion that reduces the pain they feel. Others are taught self-hypnosis and can hypnotize themselves when pain interrupts their ability to function. Self-hypnosis is a form of relaxation training.