Chronic pain is a complicated issue that can be hard to treat. Often, a variety of approaches are needed to help lessen pain, improve independence and help you cope with the emotional impact. Here we'll look at chronic pain management and in particular, how hypnosis for pain relief can help.
What is chronic pain?
There are two different types of pain - acute and chronic pain. Acute pain (also referred to as short-term pain) is usually a result of an accident or temporary illness. In this case, your doctor will make a diagnosis and suggest ways to manage the pain (for example, pain killers).
Chronic, or long-term pain is often more complicated. The pain may be a result of a medical condition, or there may not be any obvious cause. This doesn't mean the pain isn't real, it just makes treatment that much more complex.
If you are experiencing pain, you are always advised to see your doctor. They will be able to investigate further to find out what is causing it and how best to treat it. Some illnesses and conditions are well known for causing pain including the following:
Arthritis is a condition that causes inflammation and stiffening of the joints. Depending on the severity, the pain can be mild or severe, making day-to-day life difficult.
Most people who develop cancer will experience pain at some point. This may be due to the tumours themselves, or the cancer treatment. Again, the degree of pain will be dependent on the individual circumstances.
Cluster headaches and migraines
Cluster headaches cause sudden, sharp pain in the head and can last anything from 15 minutes to three hours. As their name suggests, they tend to come in clusters, leaving the sufferer in a great deal of pain.
Migraines are a particularly painful form of headache that can cause vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. If you suffer from migraines regularly, your doctor may prescribe medication.
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS)
This condition typically develops after an injury has been sustained. The pain following the injury is ongoing and tends to be disproportionate to the original injury.
This gynaecological condition occurs when cells like those found in the womb are found in other parts of the body. For some, the condition is painless. The majority however experience pelvic pain, severe period pain and pain during/after sex.
The cause of fibromyalgia is largely unknown. Its symptoms include widespread aches with muscles feeling stiff. Painkillers, physical therapy and relaxation therapies are normally advised.
Multiple sclerosis (MS)
MS is a condition that affects the brain, nerves and spinal cord. Around half of those with MS will experience pain. This can either be musculoskeletal due to pressure on muscles/joints or neuropathic, where damaged nerve fibres cause a burning/stabbing sensation.
Sciatica and back pain
Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve is irritated by the back (which often happens after a slipped disc). This causes an ache down the leg for sufferers. Other forms of back pain can be caused by previous injury or overuse of the muscles.
Neuroscience has noted that when acute pain shifts to chronic pain, it can cause marked changes in brain activity and the way the brain works while having an effect on a person's mental abilities. Ongoing chronic pain can also result in a raised level of stress, anxiety, low mood, and depression.
If you experience pain on a regular basis, it's important to consider how to manage your pain. As tempting as it may be to lie in bed and not move, in most cases this only makes things worse. Inactivity can cause your body to stiffen up and over time you lose strength. This can then affect your sleep and mood.
If you are able to, try to stay as mobile as possible. Gentle exercise can actually work as a natural form of pain relief. Be sure to consult your doctor to find out which exercises you can do safely. Look for something that won't put too much strain on your body such as:
Sometimes just getting up and being active is enough. Listen to your body and don't overexert yourself.
Many people with chronic conditions require some form of physical therapy. This will be carried out by medical professionals as part of your treatment plan. Physical therapy generally involves stretching exercises, manipulation and other pain relief exercises.
Medications and painkillers can also form part of your chronic pain management plan. Your doctor should always advise this. Painkillers can be effective, however it is important to use them safely as they can have side effects.
Another important aspect of pain management involves looking at the link between the body and mind.
Hypnosis for pain relief
Therapies that address the mind-body link are often recommended for those dealing with long-term pain. Stress and anxiety are common side effects of pain and can even make the sensation feel worse. The way the mind responds to pain also links to the perception of physical sensations.
Helping to reduce stress and change the thought patterns related to pain can therefore make a huge difference to pain perception. For this, many opt for hypnotherapy.
Research suggests that hypnotherapy can be an effective way of managing pain, chronic pain, and surgery-related pain and anxiety.
When you are under hypnosis you focus on relaxation and letting go of distracting thoughts. This temporarily tunes out the conscious part of your mind, opening you up to the power of suggestion. At this point, your hypnotherapist can make suggestions to encourage pain relief. Most hypnotherapists will also give post-hypnotic suggestions, allowing you to carry out self-hypnosis after the end of your sessions.
Here hypnotherapist Lin Debarr leads a self-hypnosis session to help lower pain levels so you can relax more easily (please note that this recording may not be suitable if you have hydrophobia - fear of water).
Rather than convincing you that your pain doesn't exist, hypnosis for pain aims to manage any fear and anxiety you may have relating to your pain. It also helps to reduce stress and relax the nervous system to help it become less reactive to pain.
Hypnosis for pain relief also refocuses your mind away from the pain and onto something more pleasant. For example, many hypnotherapists will ask you to imagine that you're somewhere nice, like a beach. Using visualisation techniques you may be asked to describe the place in more detail. Thinking about what the sea looks like, the warmth of the sun and the feeling of sand between your toes can help to distract you from your pain.
The number of sessions you'll need will depend on your individual circumstances, however hypnosis for pain usually lasts between four and 10 sessions. Some hypnotherapists will make recordings for you to use at home so you can continue to employ hypnosis techniques.
The nature of hypnotherapy means it doesn't work for everybody. However, it is a natural therapy with no side effects, so it's certainly worth trying. Many people say it's an effective tool to use as part of their chronic pain management plan.
Hypnotherapy interventions will often involve visualisations to help you decrease the intensity of the pain you feel. For example, IBS 'gut-directed hypnotherapy' involves using visualisations to calm the gut and digestive systems.
Relaxation for pain relief
When we are in pain our bodies typically tense up. This only exacerbates the sensation, continuing the cycle of stress, tension, fear and pain. Relaxation techniques can help to alleviate this. When we are relaxed mentally, our bodies follow.
There are several different relaxation techniques you can employ for pain relief including meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and breathing techniques.
Meditation is a process that aims to quiet the mind and relax the body. The two most common types of meditation are:
- Transcendental meditation - This is where you repeat a word or phrase (known as a mantra) to allow other thoughts to dissipate.
- Mindfulness meditation - This is where you focus on the present moment.
Studies have suggested that regular meditation can increase pain tolerance as well as reduce stress and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation in particular has been used to help those with chronic pain conditions such as headaches, low back pain and gastrointestinal pain.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Also known as systematic muscle relaxation, this technique involves tensing and relaxing muscle groups. The idea behind this is to help the participant recognise the difference between tension and relaxation, which in turn relaxes the body. Some hypnotherapists employ this technique during hypnosis for pain relief.
Breathing techniques are designed to teach people how to use their breath to relax and reduce stress. Hypnotherapists typically use breathing techniques to help clients relax and enter the hypnotic state. Many will also teach clients breathing techniques to practise at home.
Pain and mental health
Living with pain on a daily basis can be incredibly difficult - both physically and mentally. Having to cope with long-term conditions like this can lead to increased levels of stress, insomnia and even depression and anxiety.
If you suffer from chronic pain, you may find you experience anxiety symptoms. You may worry about the sensation and what it means, or you may anticipate pain. In some cases, certain situations induce anxiety as you worry about whether or not your condition will cause problems.
Being anxious can increase your perception of pain as you become more stressed and focused on the sensation. A big part of hypnosis for pain looks at this very issue. By helping your mind to react differently to the sensation, anxiety levels reduce.
To find out more about anxiety and how hypnotherapy can help, take a look at our dedicated anxiety section.
With pain typically comes a great deal of negativity. You may think about how bad you're feeling or wondering 'why me?'. Negative thinking like this may lead to depression. This mental health condition affects quality of life and can become very serious.
Many chronic pain sufferers find it helpful to join a support group. Here you can talk to other people going through the same thing and openly discuss your feelings. If you are diagnosed with depression, you may be advised to try therapies like counselling or hypnotherapy.
To find out how hypnotherapy can support those with depression, read our depression section.
When we are in physical pain, relaxing and falling asleep can become difficult. In some cases, it can lead to sleeplessness or insomnia. Sleep is important as it gives our minds and bodies time to recover from the day - something that is often especially important to those with chronic pain conditions.
Hypnotherapy for insomnia is a valuable tool for many, encouraging both relaxation and restful sleep. Find out more on our insomnia fact-sheet.
If you have a chronic pain condition, it's important to know that you don't have to go through it alone. Seeking both medical and therapeutic support is essential. Utilising expertise from the medical profession can help you to practically manage your condition, while mind-body therapies like hypnotherapy can help manage related symptoms and change the way you cope with the pain.
Very often, it is this combination of approaches that helps people with their chronic pain management. If you are considering hypnosis for pain, be sure to tell your doctor and remember that it is a complementary therapy, designed to be used in conjunction with traditional medicine.
You may also find it helpful speaking to other people who live with pain. Support groups and online forums can help you feel less alone and offer you a space to be heard and share tips. Organisations like Action on Pain and Pain Concern offer support phone lines and forums.