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Two Alternative Ways to Manage Pain

Updated on December 26, 2017

Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience arising from actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage

— The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP)

There are multiple methods present to reduce and manage pain, be it chronic (long term, a permanent state) or acute (short term). However, the most popular is physiological, or medical treatment. From mild painkillers to heavy analgesics, this method is often mostly everyone's first choice, mainly due to quick and effective results. However, there are other, alternative methods that are equally effective in reducing pain. While not as quick as medical treatments, the regular practice of these can surely help reduce dependency on heavy pain relieving chemicals such as centrally active analgesics (heroine and morphine) which carry harmful side effects.

The two alternative methods are:

  • Coping and Distraction
  • Imagery

These are cognitive methods, or in other words, those that make use of mental processes. Hence, before we plunge into their explanations, it is important to prove why such alternate methods could be effective alongside the all time popular medical treatments. This can be done by understanding the causes, or theory behind the occurrence of pain.

Gate Control Theory

The most popular theory is the Gate Control Theory by Melzack and Wall (1965). This theory states that situated near our spinal cord is a neural or "pain" gate that, when opened at varying degrees causes one to feel pain of different intensities. The opening and closing of this gate is controlled by three factors. These are one's physical condition, emotional condition and cognitive (mental) condition. For instance, if an individual is physically hurt (injured), utterly bored with nothing to distract them, while also emotionally devastated over a heartbreak or break up, then the pain gate will be opened wide, resulting in great discomfort. This means that it is not only our physical condition (damaged tissues, muscles), but also our mental and emotional state that interact to produce discomfort. Hence, cognitive techniques of management can reduce pain intensity by managing the mental and, to some extent the emotional aspect of it.

And now, without further ado...

1. Distraction and Coping

One alternative method of coping with pain is Distraction. A state of mind that often occurs in tedious and boring tasks, it is surprisingly beneficial, if maintained persistently, for managing pain. In this method one diverts attention from their unpleasant state by focusing on a non painful, engaging stimuli in their immediate environment. For instance, divulging in an intriguing and complicated task or activity (puzzles, games etc), or taking part in discussions (socializing) with friends or family. Hence, anything that allows one's mind to focus on anything other than their pain. It is important to note that the more demanding and interactive the task, the faster the unpleasant feelings will ebb away. Thus, this method controls the cognitive aspect, reducing the intensity of pain.

Why should you adopt this practice?

  1. Distraction is highly useful for those undergoing mild to moderate short term pain (headaches, muscle pain). It can reduce their intake of medicines (Dosage), or delay or eliminate the commencement of medical treatment all together.
  2. Those suffering from chronic pain can, alongside medication, use distraction periodically (when pain is moderate to slightly high) in order to reduce dependency on strong analgesics and painkillers.
  3. It does not require any equipment or material (as opposed to medicines) except an active mind, nor are their any limitations and rules of timings and intake, such as with medicines. Thus, matters of cost, procedure, subscriptions etc will not hinder anyone's attempts to manage their pain.
  4. Unlike with medicines, there are no dangerous side effects present, while the risk of addiction is nonexistent
  5. It can be practiced by individuals of all age groups, along with the required dosage of medicine to reduce discomfort faster.

2. Imagery

Another method one can use to manage pain is imagery or guided imagery. In this method, the individual is instructed to conjure a mental image or scenery that evokes peace, calm and positive feelings in order to alleviate the discomfort they feel. Therapists often encourage patients to include aspects of multiple senses. Thus, incorporating smells and sounds into the mental picture. This is done to conjure an image strong enough to mentally transport the person away from their unpleasant state and consequently reduce their pain. While it may seem similar to Distraction, this method is centered on solely on one's imagination, as opposed to real life objects and circumstances in their environment. This method works best when accompanied by biofeedback. Biofeedback is a process which makes use of physiological measures (for example, EEG's, heart rate machines etc.), to test/measure changes in one's physical state (heart rate, muscle tension) as their pain decreases or increases. These changes are reported back to the individual at the same time. Hence, the provision of this information will give the individual a greater sense of control of their situation, enabling them to work hard to maintain their mental image and this particular practice on a regular basis.

Why to adopt this method?

  1. It is highly effective for mild to moderate pain, especially if acute, and can delay the commencement of a medical course.
  2. This method is highly valid, due to the use of biofeedback, which provides an accurate measure of the changes in one's pain levels.
  3. There is no danger of harmful side effects present, nor is their any risk of addiction or dependency.
  4. This method is practiced in the presence and with guidance of a therapist, thus, they have no choice but to comply with the instructions. On the other hand, albeit given through subscriptions, the individual is in complete control of the intake of pills and medicine. Thus, it is possible that they may not properly adhere to the instructions and procedures of dosage and intake.
  5. Imagery can be practiced by people of any age group, especially children who are likely to be far more enthusiastic and apt at this, due to their vivid sense of imagination and fantasy. Moreover, it is far safer for them than heavy painkillers or other medicines.

These are the two alternative methods that one can use to manage their ways and reduce the use of medication to the most possible minimum. For mild short term pain, such as brief headaches, these methods can be used in lieu of medication, while it can be practiced alongside medication in moderate to severe pain, so as to manage both the cognitive and physical aspect of pain and reduce significant amount of discomfort.

© 2017 Fatema


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