Relieving pain has always been one of the chief goals of medicine, yet doctors traditionally haven’t addressed it as a separate problem, focusing instead on underlying diseases. That perspective is changing as studies find that relieving pain helps people fight their illnesses better. It’s now becoming common for doctors to view pain almost as a distinct disorder — or at the very least, a “fifth vital sign” (along with temperature, pulse, respiration, and blood pressure) that must be controlled for overall good health. Most treatments for arthritis both help ease pain and fight joint breakdown, but that’s only the start of pain-control methods at your disposal.
Take Your Mind Away
It’s clear that pain is as much a mental experience as a physical one. Ever get a sports injury that didn’t really hurt until after you stopped playing, laughed off a bump on the head, or kissed away a child’s boo-boo? That’s the nebulous power of the mind at work against all-too-real pain.
As pain signals zip back and forth between the brain and far reaches of the nervous system, they can be influenced in a number of different ways. One theory holds that gates in the nervous system’s circuitry can be closed to pain if competing signals use the same pathway. That may allow you to curtail pain by filling your head with more pleasant thoughts through meditation, hypnosis, or exercises using imagery. Other research suggests that the way you interpret pain can change its impact on the body, making a sense of control, good spirits, and lack of anxiety potent buffers against suffering.
Picture Yourself in a Boat on a River
You don’t need mind-blowing psychedelic excess to take your brain beyond your pain. You just need to focus on thoughts that are pleasant, calm, and engaging. Some of the best ways to do it:
1. Distract yourself. When pain flares, avoid dwelling on it by keeping yourself occupied. Any engaging activity such as reading, working a puzzle, watching TV, visiting friends, working on a craft, or going to an artistic performance can help. If you’re stuck with nothing to do, try mind games such as counting backward from 100, listing the 50 states, or remembering the names of all your primary school teachers.
2. Meditate. Settle into a comfortable chair in a quiet corner. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Focus your mind on a simple word or phrase tied to your breathing. Those are the basic elements of meditation, which can ease pain by calming both your mind and body.
3. Take a mental trip. Wherever you go, there you are — but your mind can still be far away: strolling a beach at sunset, saluting the world from a mountaintop, or playing care-free in your old childhood home. To practice the technique known as imagery, picture yourself moving from one vivid setting to another. To engage as much of your brain as possible, focus on these elements:
Imagine how your whole body is affected by the soothing rock of a boat in calm waters or the wafting of a gentle breeze on your skin.
Olfactory signals are closely linked with memories and emotions, and are thought to calm the same part of the brain that processes pain.
Vivid hues are not only a feast for the mind’s eye, they can also be used to represent your pain. Example: Visualize your pain as a red spot on your body that fades and dissipates as it’s struck by the warming rays of the sun.
Imagined warmth is often more soothing (unless, perhaps, you live someplace oppressively hot). Imagine yourself in the temperate dawn of a tropical paradise.
Picture yourself in locations you associate with relaxation or happiness — an island, a childhood vacation site, a favorite room.