Whenever my TMJ doctor does trigger point injections on me, one of his nurses will gently tap on my shoulder or head on the opposite side from where the injection is going. It took me a couple of visits before I realized this was a distraction technique, and it works. I’ve often relied on distraction as a pain management tool, but even more so in the last couple of years. Blogging is just one way I distract myself from the pain. Although at times the fog is there and blogging isn’t an option, on days like that I might play what my husband calls a “random clicky game” on Facebook (the ones that need little strategy other than clicking the mouse button or space bar repeatedly). Therefore, I can’t say I was surprised when I read this 2012 study that showed that distraction is a valid pain management tool.
The real bottom line of the study was that placebos work, but that placebos combined with distraction work even better. A large % of how medications work is based on our own expectations. Just like “recreational” drugs, we are likely to have the result we expect to have. If we are told that something will help our pain, we are likely to believe it will help, and therefore feel some improvement based solely on using the placebo medication. One thing that’s important to note is that the participants in this study did not have chronic pain (at least as far as we can tell from the info provided in the study), pain was created through electrical current. The study was repeated over a three-day period; pain was instigated through electrical current, and participants had a cream applied to their skin (they were either told it was analgesic, or non-analgesic). Their results indicated that the placebo reduced pain (enough that people said they’d pay $20 for the cream), and the distraction task reduced pain; however, there was not an interaction between the task and the placebo (one didn’t impact the other).
Now that we know that distraction has been proven to reduce pain, here’s some great ways to distract yourself from pain.
- Focus on your breath – relax and take a deep breath. Continue to breath in and out slowly. Try to count to at least 10 on each breath in and each breath out. As you really focus on breathing it’s hard to focus on much else, and you will find that the exhales help you relax. Keep this up as long as you can.
- Imagine Pain Relief – Imagine that you just got a shot of some great pain reliever in the area where it hurts, focus on how that would feel, and the sensations that would come with it. How the area of your body would feel as the pain reliever takes hold. This acts almost as a mental placebo.
- Focus on a different time – Think back to a time when you were not in pain, when you were enjoying life in such a way that even if you’d felt a twinge of pain you would not have noticed. Try to feel the feelings you had at that time, and really hold onto them.
- Find Something Funny – Whether it’s a favorite old tv series (I suggest the Golden Girls) or the latest funny movie, find something that you can laugh at. They say that laughter is the best medicine and except for when you laugh so hard it hurts, it’s hard to think about the on-going pains when you are laughing.
- Shock yourself – no I don’t mean electro-shock therapy, I mean find the most shocking thing you can on the internet (or a scary movie) and watch it. Research has shown that looking at something rather bad or shocking can distract you from pain better than looking at more pleasant things. So, pull up a good scary movie, or watch that latest car crash video on youtube.
- Listen to Music – When it comes to distracting myself with music, I find it very helpful to focus on building playlists and rating the music. If I’m thinking about what “bin” to fit that song into or whether or not it really deserves to be in my playlists at all, it takes a good amount of thought power, leaving little brain power to focus on the pain.
- Play a game – like I mentioned when I’m in a really bad place I like random clicky games, but if my brain is working and I just don’t feel up to really focusing on something that matters, I’ll play some online poker. You might prefer an Xbox game that you can really get into, or some other sort of game to focus on (but seriously, Candy Crush just creates stress and we know what stress does – I swear that game just added to my insomnia).
- Spend time with friends – If you enjoy a good phone call then call up a long-distance friend you haven’t seen in a while (or another spoonie) and have a nice long chat. If you aren’t a phone person then make some time to visit with a friend, go to them or invite them to visit you. Spending time with a friend can help distract you in so many ways, just try to avoid getting into pain-focused conversations. Best bet is if you can visit with a friend and find a way to laugh!
- Enjoy nature – Get outside if you can (or near a window if you can’t) and enjoy nature. Watch the birds, the squirrels, or the neighbors. That last one can be a really good distraction (but I won’t get started on that). It might even be worth installing a bird feeder just to bring more beauty to your hard (or patio), giving you something to focus on.
- Make some friends online – Twitter, Facebook, and online forums can be a great distraction, just ask anyone who has ever stepped foot into any of them. You only meant to be there for 5 minutes and then it’s 3 hours later. Better yet (for me, anyway) is Youtube. The reason I rarely go on youtube is because it’s a trap and I can’t get out once I get in.
Buhle, J. T., Stevens, B. L., Friedman, J. J., & Wager, T. D. (2012). Distraction and placebo: Two separate routes to pain control. Psychological Science, 23(3), 246-253. doi:10.1177/0956797611427919