Pain is the conscious correlate of perceived threat. – Lorimer Moseley, Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and Chair in Physiotherapy, Uni SA
Pain is only pain if we are consciously aware of it, if you aren’t aware of pain, you don’t have pain!
Knowing this, if we can shift our awareness away from pain, we can reduce it.
In medical terminology, this is described as distraction therapy.
Distraction therapy is an effective pain management strategy, and it’s something you’re likely to be familiar with.
If you’ve ever spent any time with children, you’ll have seen them hurt themselves. Sometimes, after a minor fall/scratch/scrape children make a bigger fuss than warranted (tears and tantrums), mostly for attention. Many clever parents use simple distraction techniques to take a child’s mind off the pain they are experiencing. It usually works a treat.
This is distraction therapy.
How Does It Work
There are 2 inter-related but separate mechanisms that are at play.
The first, and probably the coolest, is that distraction therapy leads to the secretion of pain relieving opoids by the brain (1).
These opioids, termed endogenous, as opposed to exogenous opioids that you consume (codeine, oxycodone etc) act within the central nervous system to reduce pain.
The second involves competition for attention between an important sensation and consciously directed focus (2).
This is because the conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time.
Sure, we can rapidly alternate our attention between two or more things, but at any given moment our attention can only be on one thing.
And going back to the opening quote, “pain is the conscious correlate of perceived threat”, if our consciousness is focused elsewhere, then it cannot focus on pain.
How Do You Use It?
The great thing about this, just like with children, you can use this to help reduce your pain.
It’s important to understand that distraction therapy is not magical. It is simply a pain management technique that is free, easy to implement and accessible to all.
Distraction therapy can work with pain of all different causes, but you can’t ignore the underlying issue:
- If your pain is caused by a medical condition, see a doctor!
- If you are suffering pain due to injury, the injury must heal first before the pain goes away.
- Likewise if you have pain related to movement issues, they must be resolved.
- Finally, please understand, that persistent or chronic pain is considered a disease in its own right, it’s also not considered to be curable, instead, focus on finding effective management strategies.
So how do you do it? The beauty of distraction therapy is that there is no one way.
The most important thing is to use an activity that is interesting and meaningful to you. One that is comfortable and immersive.
You can’t think to yourself “I’m doing to distract myself from the pain by doing this” while you are doing it, because that means your attention is on your pain and not on the activity.
Doing this causes you to engage in a state of flow, and given that your brain will want to remain in this state, it will secrete opioids to modulate your pain.
That’s a win-win. You get to do something that is important to you and reduce your pain at the same time!
There is no limit to how long this will work for, it depends on how strong your concentration is.
Intention and Distraction: The Next Level?
Whilst the research on distraction therapy focuses on the immediacy of performing a task and the subsequent physiological response, here at Integrative Osteopathy we have used similar principles to help patients throughout their entire day.
This is not, strictly speaking, distraction therapy, but the principles are similar – namely that the conscious mind can only give attention to one thing at a time.
Not only does this technique help with pain management, but it can improve your mood and even your life.
The technique is called setting your intention.
It simply involves a short period of quiet contemplation in which you focus your attention on your intention.
What is your intention? It is another way of describing your focus.
If you look back through time, pretty much all cultures had periods of quiet contemplation built into their lives.
Whether it was prayer, meditation or spiritual rituals, these practices allowed people to process events that had happened and the associated thoughts and emotions, and find a place of comfort, if not clarity.
It is part of the reason mindfulness/meditation is gaining such traction in recent years – our attention is being attacked from every direction, distracting us – mindfulness helps with finding clarity again.
To add in quiet contemplation to your life, it need not be complex. In fact, it’s better if it’s not.
How To Set Your Intention
Setting your intention starts with quiet contemplation. A great time to implement it is in the morning, as it sets you up for the day ahead.
Pick something you habitually do, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth, and immediately before/after, close your eyes, slow your breathing and spend a few minutes alone with your thoughts and feelings.
Focus on the one thing, above all else, that you want for the day. This is your intention.
Your intention needs to be framed in a positive way. Your brain doesn’t recognise negative words. To illustrate, make sure you don’t think of dancing elephants while you’re reading this sentence.
Once you have the elephants out of your mind, get back to setting an intention.
This focus will govern all your actions for the day, both consciously and unconsciously.
After you have set your intention, you can create an intention card (3). Write your intention down on the front of small card, in one word. Then, on the back of that card, write out a prompt question.
Usually, you would frame it like this:
A. Statement of the intention
B. A question prompting the action which leads to the intention
Here’s an example:
Imagine someone who always feels stiff.
They might set their statement of intention as this: Fluid movement.
Then their question might read: what do I have to do to experience more fluid movement?
Instead of thinking about how stiff they feel, this question prompts somebody to get up and move, to stretch, to avoid prolonged positions and a whole heap of other things, all from a positive outlook. In essence, it’s distracting them from the problem whilst prompting a solution.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.
(1) Attention Modulates Spinal Cord Response To Pain – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212003934
(2) How Does Distraction Therapy Work – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15745617
(3) Intention Cards – http://www.authenticeducation.com.au/intention-cards/