If you have chronic pain, you're not alone. According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 1.5 billion people worldwide live with some sort of chronic pain.
Nagging, stabbing, aching and persistent, chronic pain costs as much as $650 billion annually in lost wages, cost of health care and lost productivity.
Pain is a problem.
While modern medicine can treat chronic pain, evidence-based complementary medicine has benefits. In fact, nationally recognized institutions recommend non-opioid approaches to pain. Medical research shows that guided imagery can help.
According to Gail Elliott Patricolo, director or Integrative Medicine at Beaumont, "We all have what I call the 'monkey mind' that is chattering away in our heads. This is the part of the mind that elicits the stress response in our bodies. A lot of times with chronic pain patients, that's a very active part of the brain. However, guided imagery speaks to the other part of the brain that is quiet, which is connected to the relaxation response," she explains.
"With chronic pain, your brain sends a message to the body to tighten when you feel pain. If you can quiet the monkey part of the brain and soften around the pain, the pain response is diminished. Guided imagery helps train patients to connect with the quiet part of the mind and to coax out the relaxation response in the body to change the messages the brain is sending."
In some forms of guided imagery, patients can listen to a recording where they are led on a mindful, peaceful journey, for example: You lie in a hammock, feeling comfortable and calm. Start to sense the warmth of the sun soaking into the part of your body that feels pain. Try to begin to feel the sunshine moving out into the adjoining tissue. It is softening this area, warming it, helping to release any tightness. Feel this warmth deep in the area of pain and let the pain melt away.
"Guided imagery is meant to do when you're relaxing, as you're falling asleep or resting. Or, if you're having a rough day, you can sit in a quiet area and listen as much as you can. After you've listened many times, you don't need the recording, you can do it yourself," added Patricolo.
Guided imagery may also include breathing from the diaphragm, which helps the body relax.
"We walk around all day taking frequent, short, shallow breaths, but when you're in pain you often hold your breath. When we actually take a few minutes to be mindful of our breaths, we can help our body begin to release tension," said Patricolo.
Guided imagery can work on any kind of pain, and like anything it is very individual. It also tends to work better on people who are very receptive and motivated. To gain maximum benefit, research shows you need to practice for 30 days for guided imagery to become effective.
"For adults, think about how long those monkeys have been chattering. You have to be able to quiet that noise," said Patricolo.