Easy Way to Relieve Pain

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health



If you suffer from some type of chronic pain and tend to get anxious about it (or if you tend to be an anxious person in general), you’ve probably been told umpteen times by well-meaning friends, “Just try to not think about the pain”…and of course, that’s easier said than done!

But I do have good news for you today—scientists at the Pain Research Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City have learned something new about a way that people can stop thinking about their pain…interestingly, this strategy works best for people who tend to be anxious or nervous!

To find out more about this intriguing discovery, I called David H. Bradshaw, PhD, who works in the department of anesthesiology at the center. His study was published in the December 2011 issue of The Journal of Pain.


For his study, Dr. Bradshaw gathered 143 men and women, ages 18 to 55, who were healthy and free of chronic pain. Participants were given questionnaires that assessed how much general anxiety they had. Then they went through three phases of the experiment. During one phase, they sat still while, at random times, they were given fingertip shocks to produce pain. Researchers chose to shock the participants rather than study people with chronic pain, because it made the data easier to measure and control. During another phase, participants got the random shocks while individually performing an “easy” task. The easy task was listening to a familiar melody (for instance, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) and shouting “bad” when they heard a wrong note. During a third phase, they got the random shocks while individually performing a “hard” task. The hard task was similar to the easy task—but the researchers made the wrong notes more subtle and therefore more difficult to detect. How much each participant was “aroused” (or bothered) by the painful shocks was assessed by measuring changes in pupil dilation, palm sweatiness and electrical activity in the brain. Here’s what the researchers found…

Finding #1: This first discovery was not incredibly surprising. As you would expect, the more difficult the task that the participants were engaged in, the less they felt the pain.

Finding #2: The second discovery was much more interesting. Participants who had shown themselves to be anxious types on the general anxiety questionnaire and who performed the tasks well (signaling greater engagement) experienced the least amount of pain during the experiment—less pain, even, than participants who tended to have relaxed, worry-free personalities and performed the task well.

That’s the opposite of what was expected. And that’s why this study is so remarkable—it suggests that by becoming fully engaged in a task, some of the people who need pain relief the most can finally get it.


Of course, the type of task that the study participants performed isn’t something that you can easily replicate at home, but Dr. Bradshaw said there are other, similar ways that you can intensely engage your mind to relieve your pain. For example, if you want to make it less likely that your sore neck or bad back is going to bother you, forget passive activities such as watching TV. Even reading a book, while it isn’t passive mentally, is usually not very challenging—so most books aren’t likely to provide the kind of immersion that will really beat your pain.

More likely to help, Dr. Bradshaw said, are virtual-reality video games (the kind where you take on the role of a character onscreen, navigate your way through different virtual environments and make decisions along the way). In fact, research has shown that even burn patients have less pain when they play such games. Or if you’re listening to music, Dr. Bradshaw said, you can engage with it by singing or tapping along with your foot—because it forces you to pay closer attention to the rhythm, melody and lyrics. Another strategy you could try anywhere—even at work, where you can’t exactly sing along to music or play video games—is to breathe deeply, said Dr. Bradshaw. Inhale for 10 seconds, exhale for 10 seconds, and repeat this for at least a few minutes, focusing your mind on your breath and nothing else.

It is interesting to realize that the mind has so much power over our pain. Any pain reduction due to distraction is likely to be only temporary…but even brief relief is better than no relief. So when you are in pain, before you pop a pill, see if getting immersed in something doesn’t take the edge off—and if you are a worrywart, try this technique with confidence!

Source: David H. Bradshaw, PhD, research assistant professor, department of anesthesiology, Pain Research Center, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.