Thanks to advances in brain imaging, researchers have learned that pain affects thought patterns and brain physiology. Pain can actually change grey matter. This research is revealing how many mind-body therapies help reduce pain and why your mind can be a very powerful tool in pain management.
While pain often has a physical cause that can be treated with drugs or physical therapy, much of your battle with pain occurs in your mind. We’re not saying that pain is imagined or “all in your head.” Rather, that how much you think about pain affects how much pain you feel. And these thought patterns become ingrained in the mind and change brain structures.
These physical changes in brain matter affect cognitive function and emotional well-being. This is why those suffering from pain often find it difficult to function in their daily lives or experience depression.
The goal of mind-body therapy then is to take control of your thoughts, not only to prevent pain in the moment, but to prevent the negative brain “rewiring.”
The good news is that a wide variety of techniques have been found to work so there’s likely a method that will give you relief. Here are just a few mind-body approaches that are backed by scientific research.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – CBT involves identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behavior to improve coping skills and relaxation.
- Distraction – Concentrating on a complex task stimulates the cognitive cortical parts of the brain and reduces the amount of pain signals traveling from the spinal cord to the brain.
- Love – Feelings of intense love reduce pain by acting on the reward centers in the brain--similar to how opioid analgesics work.
- Playing Video Games – Researchers found that playing video games can act on both the cognitive and reward centers areas of the brain to reduce pain. Virtual reality headsets have been used with children during medical procedures.
- Laughter – A hearty belly laugh releases dopamine that reduces pain and cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. So laughter not only eases pain, it helps you relax.
- Hypnosis -- This trance-like state can be used to teach pain-reducing behavior and promote relaxation.
- Imagery – This technique uses imagined pictures, sounds or feelings to promote relaxation or ease pain. Examples include meditation, deep breathing, yoga and progressive muscle relaxation. Music is often incorporated as well.
A pain management plan may include one or several of these mind-body methods. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Social support and biomedical treatment, such as drugs or physical therapy, may also come into play.
In fact, experts say the best plans are highly individualized and employ multiple modalities. Fighting pain is a project of the mind and body—the whole person. For more on pain management, read Nine Strategies for Easing Pain Without Drugs.
The Journal of Neuroscience
The Gaea Times