Amazingly Simple Pain-Relief Trick

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

We generally assume that when something hurts, the pain is caused by a real biological event — a wound, an infection, a sprain. But this isn’t always the case. For instance, consider the dramatic example of phantom limb pain, in which people experience sensations — most often pain — in an arm or leg that has been amputated. It’s puzzling… and oddly fascinating… all the more so now that neuroscientists have discovered that they can use mirrors (in a complicated arrangement) to trick the brain into “seeing” the missing limb as present — and that doing so causes the pain to stop! Recently I read about a new effort in which UK scientists have started to develop simpler tricks that people with any kind of pain can do themselves — no mirrors needed (no drugs either) — to “fool” their brains into perceiving less pain. It involves simply touching your own body in a certain way. It sounds so appealing — does it really work?

The Brain’s Point of View

We will have to wait awhile to see published results on this research, but I didn’t want to wait to learn more about something that sounded so simple, promising and safe! I placed a call to pain psychologist Beth Darnall, PhD, at the Oregon Health & Science University, to ask her opinion on the idea of using your own touch to control pain.

Dr. Darnall told me that this works because of a process that scientists call “brain signaling.” An ample body of research has shown that often the brain does not distinguish between what is real (that you can see and touch) and what it just believes to be true based on experience. Furthermore, she said, research shows that just thinking negatively about pain can create biochemical changes that show up in MRI brain scans when areas associated with pain light up. In other words, people can literally grow their pain through their thoughts — so it also makes sense, Dr. Darnall says, that people can use their brains to banish it.

Mind Over Pain

So what can we do with this intriguing research finding? Here’s Dr. Darnall’s advice on how to put it to use right now…

The first step is to become aware of the extent to which chronic pain triggers anxiety and catastrophic thinking (chronic thoughts and feelings of helplessness and doom). This increases stress and worsens pain, so it is crucial to establish ways to calm and center your body and mind — otherwise you’ll be “at the mercy of anything in the environment, including your own body,” said Dr. Darnall. She suggested that a type of counseling called cognitive behavior therapy can be a good way to learn how to eliminate anxiety and catastrophic thinking, noting that studies show that such therapy actually can change — physically change — the neural networks of the brain and make them healthier.

As far as the self-touch method for pain relief, Dr. Darnall told me about a technique she developed called “bilateral tactile stimulation” that you can learn to use on yourself for pain relief — though it’s important to start with a practitioner in order to experience how it is properly done. Note: Psychotherapists trained in either Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) are the ones most likely to be familiar with this technique.

How it works: Sitting in front of the client, the therapist leads him/her through a guided visualization or deep-relaxation exercise while lightly and rapidly tapping one side and then the other of (for example) the back of the knees or hands — a place that is easy to reach and comfortable but not the painful spot. This is done for one to three minutes. According to Dr. Darnall, this works to reduce pain in the following ways…

  • Tapping while also doing a guided visualization seems to help patients encode positive images, feelings and thoughts more quickly.
  • In turn, this helps put a stop to the cycle of pain, stress and the body’s inflammatory response by keeping the brain from focusing on helplessness and how much it hurts.
  • Lastly, this technique can help deepen the relaxation response, thereby releasing the muscle tension that pain causes and, with it, the pain itself. In other words, the tapping helps to encode and anchor information in the brain, including the information that the patient is fully relaxed and pain-free.

The At-Home Version

Once you are familiar with the process and feel ready to try it on yourself, Dr. Darnall suggests an at-home process to follow:

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Because it is crucial to feel calm before using this technique, listen to a relaxation-response CD (many are available online and at health-food stores), meditate or do some diaphragmatic breathing to first get centered.
  • Once you are relaxed and calm, focus on envisioning positive images. Create an image of yourself hurting less and functioning better. Concentrate on how good it feels to move without pain… to experience joy… or to accomplish goals you set for yourself.
  • Now, alternating one side of the body and the other, tap your knees, legs or upper arms — whatever location you have chosen where you can easily reach and you have sensation (no numbness). Using the opposite hand (e.g., left hand on right knee, right hand on left knee), tap at a rate of two or three taps per second, all the while continuing your positive imagery, as described above. Start with sessions of about three minutes, and gradually add more time in later sessions if you wish.

As you become more practiced at this simple pain-relief technique, Dr. Darnall suggested trying to expand your vision of yourself, creating new visualizations where you picture yourself moving more easily around your life, pain-free, exercising and engaging in other activities you enjoy. Keep tapping as you do this… consider it a source of positive energy that you can “tap” at any time you wish!


Beth Darnall, PhD, assistant professor, department of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland.