There’s another approach to pain research that attempts to close, or at least lessen, the gap between the patient’s subjective experience and the data used in studies to assess pain. This involves listening to how patients talk about pain. Word choices and descriptive language can give a lot more information about pain’s impact on a patient’s life than a number rating.
Recently, researchers reviewed studies that have been done over the past several decades into the use of guided imagery in the management of pain. The many studies confirm, to a large extent, the usefulness of this therapy in reducing pain intensity, but the researchers wanted to go a step further an analyze, in their own study, how a specific guided imagery practice affected the ways in which participants talked about their pain.
The study period was short – a mere four days. During this time, participants in the guided imagery group were instructed to listen to a 7-minute audio tape three times a day and record their experiences in a daily journal. A control group was employed to compare outcomes.
The audiotape instructed participants in the treatment group to visualize their pain – emotional as well as physical – as an object with specific attributes, such as color and shape. They were then guided to take hold of the pain-object and change its shape, color, etc. The focus of this exercise was not only relaxation, as is typical of guided imagery, but providing patients with a sense that they have some level of control over their pain experience. This initiative was founded on the premise that pain is more than a physical phenomenon; the experience of it is affected by the amount and kind of attention we pay to it as well as our emotional orientation toward it.
Participants were asked to describe their pain before the study’s outset, then again each day. Six categories of descriptions were identified. Pain was described as: (1) never-ending, (2) relative (to no pain or past pain), (3) explainable, (4) torment, (5) restrictive, and (6) changeable. Numbers of patients from the control and treatment groups with descriptions in each category were comparable at the study’s outset, with fewest participants giving descriptions that fell in the changeable category.
Drastic changes were seen in the “never-ending” category by day two in the guided imagery group, with only one participant from that group giving such a description (down from 11 at outset), compared to 11 in the control group (up from 10 at outset). This remained consistent on day 3. At the study’s conclusion, patients in the treatment group described pain as changeable and reported a greater sense of control over their experience of pain.
See more on this study by Googling “Changes in the Meaning of Pain with the Use of Guided Imagery.”
Guided imagery is safe, affordable and likely empowering to patients, making it a worthwhile component of chronic pain management. It has the potential to change the overall experience of pain, which is more valuable than a decrease in pain intensity score alone.