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Hypnosis, Meditation, and Relaxation for Pain

Stress and pain often go hand in hand. Hypnosis, meditation, and relaxation may help break the cycle.

If you’re thinking about trying these ways to work on your pain, you’ll want to know what to expect and how well they work.

Hypnosis (Hypnotherapy)

If you’re picturing a stage act led by a man with a swinging watch who gets volunteers to walk like a chicken or bark like a dog, forget that. Clinical hypnosis is a real therapy in which you learn how to use the power of your mind to help make positive changes. And you’re in control.

During hypnosis, you’ll focus on relaxation and letting go of distracting thoughts. You may become more open to specific suggestions and goals, such as lowering pain. After your session, your therapist will go over the things that you can do to help you reach those goals.

Research shows that medical hypnosis can help with both sudden (acute) and long-term (chronic) pain from cancer, burns, and rheumatoid arthritis. It may also ease the anxiety some people feel before surgery.

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When researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York analyzed 18 studies, they found moderate to large pain-relieving effects from hypnosis, supporting its use for pain management.

To find a licensed hypnotherapist, speak to your doctor or contact the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.

Meditation

Meditation is like brain training. Anyone can do it -- anytime, anywhere.

Studies suggest that making meditation a habit may help people manage their pain and self-esteem and lower their anxiety, depression, and stress.

The details vary, depending on what type of meditation you choose to do, but it comes down to spending a few minutes (or longer) focusing your attention on one thing -- such as your breathing or a word or phrase that inspires or comforts you. As you meditate, other thoughts are bound to come up. That’s OK. Just direct your attention back to the thing you chose to focus on.

Meditation is safe to try in addition to (not instead of) treatments that your doctor recommends.

Relaxation Therapies

These include techniques that aim to ease stress. In addition to meditation, the major types include:

Progressive muscle relaxation. You slowly tense each muscle group, hold the tension briefly, and then let it go. You’ll do this in a systematic way -- for instance, starting with the muscles in your toes and working your way up your body. It helps you become aware of -- and release -- areas where you’re tense.

If you have cardiovascular (heart) disease that’s not under good control, you should skip progressive muscle relaxation. Tensing your abdominal muscles can build up pressure in the chest cavity, slow your pulse, and hamper the flow of blood returning to the heart.

Autogenic training. This technique uses visual imagery and body awareness to help you relax. The person imagines being in a peaceful place and then focuses on different physical sensations, such as heaviness of the limbs or a calm heartbeat. People may practice on their own, creating their own images, or be guided by a therapist.

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Breathing. It’s something you do every second of every day -- but often, we forget that it’s happening at all. You can practice tuning into your breathing as a form of meditation: in and out, in and out. You can also learn to do breathing exercises. For instance, you can breathe in slowly while you count to 4, hold your breath for 7 more counts, and then exhale for 8 counts.

The best way to learn relaxation techniques is with the help of a trained practitioner. Usually, these techniques are taught in a group class and then practiced regularly at home.

If you’ve had psychosis or epilepsy, you may want to speak with your doctor before trying meditation. There have been reports of some people having further acute episodes after deep and prolonged meditation.

Hypnosis or deep relaxation can sometimes worsen psychological problems in people with posttraumatic stress disorder or who are vulnerable to false memories. You should check with your doctor first.

Tai Chi and Qi Gong

They’re both mind-body practices that have been around for centuries. You use postures, gentle movements, breathing techniques, and mental focus. Studies have found that they can help lower knee pain from osteoarthritis and help people with fibromyalgia and back pain. The evidence is less strong that tai chi and qi gong can help with long-term neck pain.

Biofeedback

This uses sensors attached to your body to help you practice relaxation. Specifically, biofeedback teaches you how to control involuntary responses, like your heartbeat or your blood pressure. Studies suggest that biofeedback may ease migraine and tension headaches. The evidence for other types of pain is less clear.

Acupuncture

This ancient medical technique stimulates certain points in your body, usually with thin needles put into the skin. Acupuncture has shown to benefit some people with specific types of pain. They include neck, low back, and knee pain from osteoarthritis. Acupuncture also may prevent migraines and cut down on how often you get tension headaches.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 19, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Continuum Health Partners: "Psychological/Mind-Body Therapies."

American Society of Clinical Hypnosis: "Common Questions About Hypnosis,” “Definition of Hypnosis,” “Selecting a Qualified Professional.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association, July 24-31, 1996.

Montgomery, G.H. International Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, April 2000.

Vickers, A. The Western Journal of Medicine, October 2001.

Breastcancer.org: "What is Meditation?"

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Relaxation Techniques."

NYU Langone Medical Center: "Relaxation Therapies."

News release, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Meditation: In Depth.”

Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine: “4-7-8 Breath Relaxation Exercise.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Tai Chi and Qi Gong: In Depth,” “Complementary Health Approaches for Chronic Pain: What the Science Says,” “Acupuncture: In Depth.”

National Qigong Association: “What Is Qigong?”

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