Chronic Pain

Pain management: relaxation and distraction

Many people that we talked to had used some sort of relaxation technique such as 'progressive muscle relaxation' or 'abdominal breathing' to manage their pain. Others used relaxation with a technique of distracting themselves known as 'visualisation'.

Some people used a combination of these techniques. Relaxation was thought to help reduce stress and muscle tension which could make the pain worse. One man had been taught relaxation and visualisation on a Pain Management Programme. He explained that they are also thought to help release natural pain-relieving chemicals into the brain.

Some people had been taught how to think about or 'visualise' their pain as something that they could reduce or put away for example, putting the pain in a box, dimming a bright light or watching a hot sun set. One woman described visualising putting the pain from her thumb behind a glass screen and was surprised when it worked.
Others found it helped to visualise a relaxing experience such as walking along a beach or sitting by a waterfall. Some people listened to relaxation tracks to help them with the visualisation, which they found helpful. Although one woman pointed out that to get the most benefit you had to use them regularly.

A few people found visualisation difficult but had found that a technique called 'progressive muscle relaxation' helped. Others had not found specific relaxation methods helpful and preferred to relax by listening to music, watching the television or reading a book. These were also good methods of distraction.

Being able to distract the mind away from the pain by immersing themselves in another activity was a valuable self-management skill for some people who had taken up a new hobby such as woodwork or sewing which they found a good distraction. Others found it helpful to concentrate on a piece of work or solving a problem. Day to day activity such as spending time with the family, thinking about grandchildren or even driving could be a good distraction technique.
Many people pointed out that although it is good to hear what works for others, not all techniques of distraction and relaxation suit everybody and it is important for each person to find out for themselves what is most helpful.

Since these interviews were recorded, techniques such as ‘mindfulness’ are increasingly used to help with chronic pain. The aim in mindfulness is to be more aware of the present moment, including your feelings and thoughts, your body and the world around you. The idea is that this can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges. Mindfulness combines various meditation practices (including a method called 'body scan') with modified yoga exercises and mind-body education (a form of Tai- chi) which all emphasise awareness of breathing techniques and relaxation.

Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated May 2015.


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