• Shannon Sims, PhD

Mind-Body Therapies and Chronic Pain



So how much do we really know about the effectiveness of complementary and integrative approaches for chronic pain? Turns out, we know quite a bit. A growing body of research evidence suggests that some mind-body approaches, like acupuncture, hypnosis, massage, mindfulness meditation, spinal manipulations, tai chi, and yoga may help manage chronic pain. But some people also choose to incorporate integrative and mind-body therapies into their treatment plan to help relieve symptoms.


What’s Mind-Body Medicine?

The evidence-based practice of mind-body medicine focuses on the interactions between the mind and the body and the powerful ways in which you can participate in your own health and healing. Thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can affect and shape every aspect of our psychological and physiological functioning, and in turn, how we care for our bodies can affect how we think and feel and what we believe. This means that we have many opportunities and can do many things to care for ourselves. There are many techniques and practices, some ancient and some modern, that we can use to have an impact on our well-being, both in mind and body.


Mind-Body Therapies for Chronic Pain

Robert Shmerling, MD, corresponding member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says that people are increasingly turning to therapies such as acupuncture and massage to help alleviate their chronic pain. There are varying degrees of empirical evidence to support the reduction in inflammation that causes pain, but the research does show that mind-body therapies can improve feelings of wellbeing, which can have an impact on pain.


If you’re ready to add new approaches to your self-care regimen, consider these options:


Massage therapy

Massage therapy has been studied for several types of pain, including low-back pain, neck and shoulder pain, pain from osteoarthritis of the knee, and headaches. While it used to be considered an indulgence, therapeutic massage is now recognized as a legitimate therapy for chronic pain. Therapeutic massage may relieve pain by way of several mechanisms, including relaxing painful muscles, tendons, and joints; relieving stress and anxiety; and possibly helping to “close the pain gate” by stimulating competing nerve fibers and impeding pain messages to and from the brain.


Massage has been shown to have a positive effect on pain in the back, hands, neck, and knees, among other areas. One study showed a reduction in hand pain and an improvement in grip strength among people who had four weekly hand massage sessions and did self-massage at home. They also slept better and had less anxiety and depression than people in the control group who didn’t receive hand massage. Another study found that 60-minute therapeutic massage sessions two or three times a week for four weeks relieved chronic neck pain better than no massage or fewer or shorter massage sessions.


There are no data to suggest that massage is harmful, but there are some specific situations where it is not recommended: massaging an inflamed area of skin, for example, can make it worse by causing irritation. Also, you should not massage an area of infection, as it might spread the infection.


Hypnosis

Hypnotic or ‘trance-like’ states have been used to treat physical and mental health since ancient times. It is an experience that involves cognitive processes, like the imagination, whereby the individual is guided by a health professional to respond to suggestions for changes in perceptions, sensations, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. According to the Society of Psychological Hypnosis (Division 30), hypnosis involves learning how to use your mind and thoughts to manage emotional distress (such as anxiety), unpleasant physical symptoms (such as pain), and certain habits or behaviors (such as smoking).


Hypnosis has been found to be generally more effective than other non-pharmacologic interventions, such as physical therapy and pain education. Growing evidence suggests that hypnosis can reduce the perception of pain. Research has shown that hypnosis may be able to reduce pain, lower stress, relieve anxiety, improve sleep, improve mood, and reduce the need for opioids. Further, hypnosis can be a great addition to other well-established treatments for pain.


Most people describe hypnosis as a pleasant experience, associated with a feeling of being focused and absorbed in the experience, as well as being more alert, relaxed, comfortable, and peaceful. No matter what the experience, patients consistently report better health and happiness after using these techniques. If you’re interested in trying clinical hypnosis, you should seek a trained health care professional, such as a licensed psychologist or a masters' level clinician.


Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a mind-body therapy that uses electronic instruments to help you receive information about your body. This technique can help you learn how to take control of some physical functions, like heart rate, that were previously believed to be out of our control. The feedback signals help you to make subtle changes in your body, such as relaxing certain muscles, to achieve certain results, like reducing pain. Essentially, biofeedback is a tool that can give you the ability to practice new ways of controlling your body, often to improve health or physical performance. For example, when paired with biofeedback, relaxation techniques can help change the way you respond to pain.


Biofeedback and hypnosis are growing in popularity as modalities for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain. Although biofeedback rarely provides a “cure” for chronic, non-cancer pain, it can be used to help patients self-regulate and influence their pain perception. Keep in mind, biofeedback should be conducted only by trained health care professionals, such as licensed psychologists or masters’ level clinicians.


Acupuncture

Part of the ancient practice of Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture uses tiny needles to puncture the skin along specific areas of the body. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways or meridians. These pathways create a flow of energy through the body that is responsible for overall health.


According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), numerous studies have shown acupuncture to help relieve chronic pain. When used alongside or in combination with other therapies, acupuncture can help people with chronic pain improve function and quality of life, according to a recent review published by the journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Results from a number of studies suggest that acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic such as low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. The research continues to evolve, but given what we know, acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option to consider for people with chronic pain. If you are interested in trying acupuncture, it is important to find a trained acupuncturist who uses sterile needles. Improper or unsanitary techniques can cause skin infections and other injuries.


To Sum Up

If you are seeking additional relief for your chronic pain, you might want to consider doing some extra research and giving one of these mind-body therapies a try. The scientific evidence is mixed, so some of these might work for you while others might not. If you decide to give one of these a go, let your physician know, and together, you and your healthcare providers can create an integrative treatment plan.


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Article written by: Shannon Sims, PhD


About the Author


Shannon Sims, PhD, Professor at Saybrook University’s College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences in the department of Mind-Body Medicine. Dr. Sims is also an integrative wellness coach and mind-body specialist with Aila Health where she focuses on supporting Long COVID and other chronic illness patients in their journey to greater wellness.




Important note: The article presented here is strictly intended for providing information about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this or any other Aila Health information source. The opinions expressed in this (and all other) Aila articles are intended to spark insightful and educated discussion about issues pertaining to chronic pain.


References:


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