Can You Control Chronic Pain With Your Mind?

It's not science fiction—learn more about managing chronic pain with the power of thought.

Can You Control Chronic Pain With Your Mind?

Medically reviewed in February 2021

Updated on March 1, 2021

It's not surprising that everyday life brings on aches and pains. Hours spent sitting in front of a computer screen, doing work around the house and handling the tensions of life can take a toll on the intricate workings of the musculoskeletal system. 

Five most common types of pain 
Many people experience one or more of the following types of pain at some point in their lives: 

  • Migraine/headache pain 
  • Back pain 
  • Joint/arthritis pain 
  • Overuse/strain injuries 
  • Arm/leg/musculoskeletal pain 

Over-the-counter pain medications and heat or cold treatments can provide relief for occasional pain. But when your headache, backache or muscular pain continues or recurs over many months, you have chronic pain, and it can seriously disrupt your quality of life. 

A recent study revealed that nearly half of chronic pain cases have no clear cause, and that 25 percent of patients with head or back pain were still experiencing symptoms 12 months after visiting their healthcare provider. 

You may not have to live with chronic pain. Some experts assert that rather than mask or tolerate it, you may be able to learn how to stop chronic pain by regulating your body with the power of your mind. 

How do mind-body interventions work? 
Mind-body advocates contend that you have more power over your pain than you realize. Your brain and central nervous system are connected and constantly talk to each other, sending and receiving signals such as pain messages. Typically, these messages result from injury or illness and stop once the body is healed. Mind-body interventions are based on the idea that this messaging system can break down, causing miscommunication between the mind and body. 

When pain messaging systems break down, constant or chronic pain messages may be sent even after the original cause of the pain is fully healed. Pain treatment programs that use mind-body interventions help interrupt these pain messages and reestablish healthy communication along the nerve paths to the brain. 

You do have control over pain 
Over the past few decades, a wealth of research has confirmed that mind-body therapies, either alone or with other treatments, may help control various types of pain and help prevent pain recurrence. Techniques that were once considered complementary or alternative, such as behavioral therapy, biofeedback, cognitive therapy, guided/visual imagery, hypnosis, meditation and relaxation therapy have now become mainstream methods for healing chronic pain. 

Studies have demonstrated the usefulness of various mind-body interventions in the management of many types of pain, such as migraine or tension-type headaches, fibromyalgia, acute sciatica and several other conditions for which no specific cause has been found. 

Your chronic pain: What's mixing up the messages? 
Feelings of anxiety, tension, anger or depression could cause a disconnect between your mind and body. When your brain is frequently forced to respond to such emotions, it essentially rewires itself to keep up with the barrage of negative stimuli. As a result, your brain may send erroneous pain messages to your body.  

With mind-body intervention, the first step is to examine your behaviors and environment with a healthcare provider or therapist to identify factors that may be causing the pain reaction. The next step is to develop more productive ways to handle the stressors you face every day so you have more control over your physiological response to these emotions. Depending on your condition, this process may take only a few weeks or may become a regular part of your health routine. 

Approach with caution 
Whether you are recovering from illness, injury or surgery or are unsure what's causing your pain, do some homework before you dive into this pain therapy. First, check with your healthcare provider to rule out the possibility of a more serious condition. Then, get advice on reputable practitioners and mind-body treatment centers available in your area. Also, be aware that not all are covered by health insurance, so cost may be a consideration.

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