I smashed my elbow recently. There was no bone break — just a bad bruise after slipping in the kitchen and landing on my arm — but at times the pain has been excruciating. So, I followed doctor’s orders: babying my elbow, icing it, and taking an occasional over-the-counter painkiller. (P.S. I wear sneakers in the kitchen now.)
Something else has helped, too: mind-body therapies. These approaches aim to change our awareness of pain and retrain the way we respond to it. The therapies can help us control pain — such as long-lasting back pain — or live with it better. While these techniques won’t erase pain, they can help change perception of pain intensity through distraction, relaxation, and reframing our thoughts.
Five mind-body therapies to consider for pain relief
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This talk therapy teaches people to redirect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in response to chronic pain. For example, when a pain flare-up strikes, instead of bracing yourself and thinking, “Oh no, here it comes again,” tell yourself you’ve handled this before, and focus instead on your favorite place in the world: picture it in your mind, and feel how happy or relaxed you are when you’re there. A therapist trained in CBT can train you to hone your skills.
Deep breathing. We typically take short little breaths without noticing our breathing, especially when we’re in pain. Focusing on breathing and taking deep breaths quiets the mind and induces the relaxation response, a well-studied physiologic response that counteracts the stress response, and may lessen chronic pain severity. To practice deep breathing:
Meditation. Like deep breathing, meditating triggers the relaxation response and may reduce the perception of pain. You can use many methods to meditate, such as transcendental meditation (repeating a word, phrase, or sound to quiet your thoughts); yoga (a series of strengthening and stretching postures combined with breathing techniques); or mindfulness meditation (focusing objectively on negative thoughts as they move through your mind, so you can achieve a state of calm).
One simple way to meditate:
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This approach combines mindfulness meditation and yoga to build awareness and acceptance of moment-to-moment experiences, including pain. A 2019 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Mental Health found MBSR was just as effective as CBT at reducing pain and depression, and improving physical functioning, compared with usual care or no care. You’ll find MBSR programs at hospitals, universities, and meditation centers, and online videos.
Relaxation. Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, may also help reduce the perception of pain. To try progressive muscle relaxation, start with your facial muscles and work your way down the body. Tighten each muscle or muscle group for 20 seconds before slowly releasing the contraction. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation.
(Heidi Godman is executive editor of Harvard Health Letter.)