Living with pain can make all aspects of your life more difficult.
From the dread you feel just getting out of bed in the morning knowing the stiffness, aches and discomfort will be there, to having to give up the activities you love because of how much worse you feel after, chronic pain can slowly steal bits and pieces of your happiness.
Yet, what are your options when turning to prescription medications can mean side effects ranging from drowsiness and constipation to addiction? Not to mention the complications of choosing a pain procedure, like an epidural steroid injection or corticosteroid injections that can speed up the disintegration of an already compromised joint.
For these reasons and more, researchers have been delving into the power of the mind to help people manage their pain. And they keep coming up with proof positive that it works…
Using your brain’s neural activity to control your pain
Research performed at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, set out to see if participants were able to reduce pain levels simply through thought.
The team exposed each subject to a painful cold stimulus and then asked them to try one of three strategies:
- Counting down from 1,000 in steps of 7
- Thinking of something pleasant or beautiful
- Persuading themselves using autosuggestion that the stimulus just wasn’t really that bad
And while each person worked at blocking out the pain using the power of their brain, the researchers were actually watching their brain activity using MRI.
Here’s where it gets really interesting…
While the team found that all of the strategies activated different regions in the brain of subjects and helped to reduce their levels of perceived pain, one strategy was a clear winner when it came to overcoming even severe and acute pain.
They discovered that, without a doubt, the countdown strategy was the most effective of the three methods.
“This task obviously requires such a high level of concentration that it distracts the subject’s attention significantly from the sensation of pain. In fact, some of our subjects managed to reduce the perceived intensity of pain by 50 percent,” said researcher and LMU neuroscientist Enrico Schulz. “One participant later reported that she had successfully adopted the strategy during the most painful phase of childbirth.”
Yes, up to a 50 percent pain reduction that could even work on the intense pain of childbirth, that’s some amazing stuff!
Acute versus chronic pain
Now, if you’re like me and are living with chronic pain, you may be thinking as I did, “That’s great that counting backward worked to block out acute pain in the moment but can it really help with what I feel on a daily basis?”
The answer is that since the results were so clearly positive, the researchers plan to find that out for sure next.
However, there’s good reason to believe that the method could be just as powerful a tool for chronic pain sufferers since the association between thought processes and long-term pain has already been well-established.
In fact, just last month, a study found that thinking about the discomfort you feel in a negative way can lead to a downward spiral of giving up physical activities and worsening pain.
And Dr. Ellen Slawsby, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School points out that, “Practicing a combination of mind-body skills increases the effectiveness of pain relief.”
So, the next time you feel pain creeping up and taking over your mind and your life, try counting down. Start at 1,000 and work your way backward by seven. By the time you hit zero, you could have your discomfort under control so that you can enjoy your life again.
Neurobiology: To keep pain in check, count down — ScienceDaily
6 ways to use your mind to control pain — Harvard Health Publishing
Epidural Corticosteroid Injections — Johns Hopkins Medicine