Suggesting to somebody suffering unremitting, intractable pain that a simple distraction technique may help where pharmacology has failed and you might expect to receive a none too polite response. However, distraction techniques can, and do, help many people who suffer chronic pain, particularly when suffering a flare up.
Some time ago we highlighted the experience of one CRPS sufferer following her foray into virtual reality (VR), which proved to be an effective method of distraction from her pain. Since then, VR systems designed specifically for both chronic pain and other therapeutic purposes have become more widely available, although some are expensive.
How does distraction work?
A specialist pain doctor once explained the concept to me in this way; it comes down to simple competition for attention. The brain can only focus on a limited number of things at a time. For example, it’s a little like trying to have two or more conversations simultaneously; it just doesn’t work. Whilst pain signals to the brain have to compete with everything else that’s going on, most of the time the pain wins over other environmental factors, which just do not engage the brain’s attention to the same extent. However, if you can identify an activity that can seize the brain’s attention, it will be unable to focus on the pain signals to the same extent.
Methods of distraction
VR has been described as ‘sensory deprivation’ and it can certainly be all consuming; all but transporting you to another world. No wonder then that it can prove such an effective method of distraction. As long ago as the mid-1990’s, VR was being trialled successfully in a pain setting, initially for patients with serious burns. However, even if VR is within your budget, is it realistic to spend large parts of your day living a Matrix-type existence?
For most people who use distraction, their technique(s) usually involves something far more worldly – and of course, what works for one person may not work another.
Some find that simply listening to their favourite music, watching television or losing themselves in a book or a film is effective. For others, something more proactive is required – photography, drawing, painting, word puzzles, writing – the list is endless. The important thing is that it consumes you. One of our clients found that mathematical puzzles helped her and this eventually lead to her studying for qualifications in maths.
Practising mindfulness means being more aware of your thoughts, current feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. In her excellent article, ‘Mindfulness for CRPS and chronic pain: what’s it all about?’, Libby Parfitt explains that “Mindfulness essentially encourages mental flexibility, giving you the choice of how to respond to what you’re feeling. Being more conscious of the present moment can enable you to enjoy life more and lessen the hold pain may have.”
In her subsequent article, ‘A beginner’s guide to mindfulness for CRPS and chronic pain’, Libby says that to practice mindfulness “you don’t need special equipment, lots of time or any particular training” and explains how to begin with some simple exercises.
Of course, distraction therapy is not meant to replace medication or other forms of therapy. It’s simply another tool to help to get you through a pain flare, or just to help you get through a normal day which would otherwise be entirely dominated by pain.