Chronic Pain Distractions That Are Good For Your Brain
Approximately 60 million people across the world suffer from chronic pain. Active receptors in the nervous system send uncomfortable sensations throughout the body. Chronic pain patients are desperate for treatment as pain becomes more frequent. What many fail to realize is that the body and mind are inherently connected. Redirecting attention towards other stimuli reduces pain signals. Thus, chronic pain distractions are imperative to pain management.
What is Chronic Pain?
Pain is an uncomfortable or unpleasant feeling experienced in an area of the body. The sensation can be described as dull, sharp, shooting, aching, or burning caused by inflammation or dysfunctional nerves. These uncomfortable sensations are signals from the nervous system to warn of something wrong in the body.
Chronic pain generally refers to persistent pain lasting at least 12 weeks. This type of pain lingers long after illness or injury. Common conditions known to result in chronic pain include cancer, fibromyalgia, nerve pain or neuropathy, and arthritis.
How Does Chronic Pain Effect the Brain?
Chronic pain is not solely a physical manifestation. Pain is a warning signal sent from the nervous system. It is produced when neurons in certain parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex become active. When the brain is constantly activated, the brain cells are prone to damage. Some die, while others change their connections with other neurons.
This is not without consequence. Pain significantly effects emotional state and mood. According to a study published by Northwestern University, participants with chronic back pain suffered from depression, anxiety, and fear. Pain also impacts memory and concentration. Those with chronic pain struggle with storing information for future processing, along with concentrating on tasks in the moment.
Gate Control Theory
Pain distraction is based on the premise of the Gate Control Theory—a theory describing how thoughts, feelings, and attention influence the various ways we experience pain.
The sensation of pain stems from the nervous system. For pain signals to reach the body, they must pass through a series of “gates” in the spinal cord. Factors such as a lack of activity, stress, or boredom causes the gates to be open, whereas activity and relaxation close the gates. Feeling pain depends on whether the gates are mainly open or closed. For example, even intense pain is not as bothersome when our attention is focused elsewhere. Contrarily, pain feels more severe when the sensation is on the forefront of our mind. This is why chronic pain treatment relies heavily on distraction.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Learn A New Skill
Aging, injury, and illness naturally cause the cells in the brain to die off. However, the brain is constantly rewiring itself. The process is called neuroplasticity. During neuroplasticity, the brain creates neurons (cells) and strengthens existing synapse (connections) to and from those cells.
Learning facilitates neuroplasticity. Not all skills are equal, but learning a new skill helps the brain reroute how it experiences pain. It aids the body in healing as it builds new connections. Studies show that adults engaging in at least ten one hour sessions of cognitive training in which they learn a new skill reverses age related mental decline.
Ideas for skills to learn are playing an instrument, studying a foreign language, cook a meal, solve a complex math problem, perform exercises (dance, Tai Chi, etc.), or draw!
Chronic Pain Distractions: Meditation
Meditation is not act of sitting crisscross applesauce, thumbs touching your index finger, and reciting om. Meditation is a useful coping mechanism for chronic pain. The technique entails training the mind to focus on an object, positive thought, or breathing patterns rather than hyper focusing on stressful stimuli (i.e. pain, anxiety, etc.). While practicing meditation, acknowledge passing thoughts, but do not dwell on them. As the mind becomes calm, so does the body.
There are many types of meditation:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Spiritual meditation
- Movement meditation
- Focused meditation
- Guided imagery (visualization)
- Chanting meditation
Guided imagery is also known as visual meditation. The goal of guided imagery is to enter a state of calmness and relaxation as your thoughts shift towards relaxing images. Each individual may have a different conception of relaxing images. For example, tanning on the beach or hiking a mountain path are positive thoughts to redirect attention to while practicing guided imagery. Thinking of positivity relaxes the muscles that are tense from pain.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Adult Coloring
Adult coloring is increasing in popularity, and with good reason. Firstly, coloring is an activity that is not overly strenuous—making it perfect for chronic pain patients. Leading art therapists confirm that the activity lowers pain receptors because the tasks distracts from ongoing pain.
Once the coloring page is finished and flawless, it provides a sense of achievement which is imperative for those who are distressed by chronic pain interfering with daily responsibilities. Adult coloring can also be combined with meditation!
Chronic Pain Distractions: Music Therapy
Music soothes the soul. Chronic pain studies utilizing music therapy for cancer patients reduced opioid requirements. Another study documented that approximately 70% of postoperative patients exposed to music had pain relief, as opposed to the other 30% without music exposure. The primary factor in the effectiveness of music therapy for chronic pain is relieving stress. When patients can relate to their music on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level, perception of pain decreases. However, the benefits are the greatest for patients who choose music meaningful to them.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Physical Touch
Physical touch reduces chronic pain—a phenomena known as tactile induced analgesia. The importance of touch is first demonstrated in infants. Having contact, especially with their mothers, furthers the development of infants. A loving touch triggers the brain to release oxytocin. Oxytocin is the “bonding hormone” that stimulates the cannabinoid receptors to relieve pain and stress. It decreases activation of the cortical areas of the brain that respond to painful stimuli.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Reading
Reading takes us to an entirely different world. It is an escape from the realities of chronic pain. Reading a novel is not necessary. If cognitive symptoms interfere with reading abilities, reading non-fiction, blog posts, or magazines capture attention so that the brain has less of an attention span to devote to pain.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Puzzles
A puzzle is a game or toy presenting a problem that requires effort and knowledge to solve. Puzzles consist of jigsaw puzzles, world puzzles (i.e. riddles, word search, Scrabble), number puzzles like Sudoku, and puzzles with shapes like Tetris. In general, puzzles are an excellent chronic pain distraction. They reroute the wiring of the brain to focus on the task at hand to solve the puzzle and not pain, anxiety, or stress. Puzzles also train cognitive skills through learning.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Consume Healthy Food
Inflammation contributes to chronic pain. Abiding by an anti-inflammatory diet is part of chronic pain management. Nutritionist Dr. Wayne Jonas suggests that the best diet for inflammation is one including mainly plant-based foods. To reduce inflammation, the majority of calories should come from healthy, whole foods: fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. For example, opt for bread with oats, brown rice, or quinoa as ingredients instead of processed refine flour. Consuming heathy food is a great pain distraction, as planning and preparing the meals is a hobby many enjoy!
Chronic Pain Distractions: Exercise
If you are experiencing chronic pain, rigorous exercise is probably the last thing you want to do. However, physical activity offers a distraction and causes he body to release feel good endorphins that relieves pain. The exercise need not be rigorous. Light exercise such as yoga, a brisk walk, cycling, or swimming are favorable options. Walking is the ideal exercise, as it is gentle while still increasing blood flow and reduces joint and muscle stiffness. Building muscle to support joints is key.
Always consult with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Writing
While chronic pain is a physical manifestation, anxiety and emotional stress are secondary. Anxiety is the body’s response to problem-solving. Stress and anxiety exist as motivation to correct a problem. However, anxiety in response to chronic pain is not easily remedied, as there is not always a resolution to chronic pain. This prolonged exposure to negative emotions alters the nervous system over time and contributes to chronic pain.
Writing or journaling serves as an outlet for expression. By writing down negative thoughts pertaining to pain, it facilitates neuroplasticity. After processing the negativity, you can deliberately choose to view them from a positive perspective.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Electronic Gaming
Utilizing technology, electronic gaming stimulates attention, which is the most studied psychological variable pertaining to pain management. Its success is that it requires active distraction that patients can participate and experience firsthand. For example, a New Zealand study published in Pain Research & Management examined pain patients playing Wii games as an active distraction versus television for passive distraction. The active distraction group reported reduced pain levels.
The nature of the video game does impact the potential benefits. Games with violence and shooting can be counterproductive—actually causing more pain! However, electronic games that train cognitive skills (i.e. memory, attention, visual processing, and auditory processing) or games such as Tetris with clear goals are conducive to pain control.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Pet Therapy
They say a dog is a man’s best friend. This is definitely true as it applies to chronic pain management. Although dogs and cats are most common, birds, fish, rabbits, horses, and gerbils are implemented for therapeutic purposes. Children patients report decreased pain levels using the FACES scale after visiting therapy dogs for fifteen to twenty minutes. Additional studies show one and four adults confirmed lower pain levels when given time with a therapy dog. Researchers have found numerous factors for pet therapy’s success in pain management. Therapy pets indirectly help with chronic pain by improving mood. It also reduces the amount of stress hormones (i.e. cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine) circulating in the body. There is evidence that an environment with animals causes the body to release oxytocin which lessens the activation of the areas of the brain that process painful stimuli.
Chronic Pain Distractions: Vent To A Friend
Chronic pain is a tough burden to bear. Those suffering from chronic pain seek supportive loved ones. Venting to a close friend is outlet to voice your struggles. It is an important release of pent up anxiety, stress, or depression as the result of chronic pain. Find a friend who allows you to share your concerns regarding chronic pain, yet also knowns of the appropriate time to distract you. That way, they can take your mind off of your symptoms by inviting you out or engaging in conservations about other topics.
Jameson, E., Trevena, J., & Swain, N. (2011). Electronic gaming as pain distraction. Pain research & management, 16(1), 27–32. https://doi.org/10.1155/2011/856014
Jonas, W. (2019). GUIDE TO NUTRITION FOR CHRONIC PAIN. Retrieved from https://drwaynejonas.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Nutrition-Chronic-Pain_White_Paper-FINAL-web-1.pdf
Northwestern University. (2008, February 6). Chronic Pain Harms The Brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 6, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080205171755.htm
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.