Pain means "ouch" and pill means "ahhhh" to many of us. But medication is far from the only option for dealing with chronic or sudden pain. Techniques that distract you, relax you, or help you rethink what you're feeling can actually alter the circuits of your brain that process and modulate pain, researchers say.
"Most patients want something fast acting, but complementary and alternative approaches to pain are very helpful and often overlooked," says anesthesiologist and pain-medicine specialist Paul Christo, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University Medical School and host of the radio program Aches and Gains.
Consider these ten brain-over-pain approaches:
1. Listen to Music -- and Really Get Into It
Music activates sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways. High-anxiety subjects who could become absorbed in musical tasks, like identifying notes in the music, lessened their pain, found researchers at the University of Utah Pain Research Center in a 2012 study. "Even 10 to 15 minutes of listening to music or playing music yourself can be a calming distraction," Christo says.
Distracting activities aren't just a mind game; they literally lessen the quantity of pain signals traveling up the spinal cord to the brain, according to a report in Current Biology in May 2012. Research shows that music is especially effective for palliative care and cancer pain, Christo adds.
Play a Video Game to Relieve Pain
Games, especially 3-D, virtual-reality types, work on multiple levels to reduce pain, according to a study from the American Pain Society. Beyond distracting you, gaming seems to reduce stress and fear (which can worsen pain perception) by occupying the senses of vision and touch. Full-immersion games seem to trigger biochemical changes in the brain that reduce pain signals while also releasing endorphins, the body's own painkillers, the researchers say.
Studies have shown this effect on both kids and adults. Burn patients' pain ratings dropped 30 to 50 percent while gaming, and the activity also worked well for coping with chemotherapy-related pain.
Have Sex to Relieve Pain
Pain may leave you feeling unsexy, but several studies have found sexual activity to be a natural pain reliever. And not just in the heat of the moment, but also during both the anticipation/fantasy phase and for a short time afterward. The exact mechanisms aren't known, but release of oxytocin (a hormone that eases stress) and endorphins (the body's natural painkiller) may be involved. Sex may also lead to a release of cortisone, which regulates pain-causing inflammation in, for example, rheumatoid arthritis.
The insula region of the brain, which is also active in response to pain, lights up during MRI sequences of sex. It's also been noted that the so-called "O" face, seen at orgasm, is the same face made in response to pain.
Get a Dog to Relieve Pain
A recent study found that just 10 to 15 minutes of interaction between pain-clinic patients and therapy dogs reduced patients' chronic pain -- and the benefits seemed to last for hours. "Dogs can act as a distraction from pain, but chemical and hormonal changes also seem to occur," says Dr. Paul Christo of Johns Hopkins. Touching a dog seems to decrease levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase endorphins.
You don't need a trained therapy dog to see this effect, Christo says. Dogs also motivate us to move, which is useful because people in pain tend to be less active, although activity can actually help reduce pain, he says.
Shift Your Focus to Relieve Pain
Ruminating on pain -- which pain-medicine experts also call "catastrophizing" -- happens when you focus on how much pain you're in, to the exclusion of other thoughts. It's an easy habit to fall into -- but people who do it seem to experience worse pain. The habit may even cause a damaging inflammatory response.
The key to stopping yourself from ruminating on pain is to be aware that you're doing it. When you catch yourself, say out loud: "OK, enough." Switch to other thoughts or activities.
When researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied 214 people with chronic face and jaw pain, they found that those who dwelled the least on pain experienced less pain and slept better. (Less sleep is linked with increased sensitivity to pain.)
Retrain Your Brain to Relieve Pain
You can train your brain to interpret pain in new ways that give you a sense of self-control over it, says pain-medicine specialist Paul Christo. In cognitive behavioral therapy, a trained therapist walks you through exercises that break counterproductive thinking patterns. Once you learn more effective techniques, you can use them yourself at home.
Examples: Rethinking what you feel as "pressure" instead of "pain." Learning to tell yourself, "I can handle this" instead of "I'm in misery." Practicing cognitive behavioral tactics daily may even change pain perception systems over the long term. Mindfulness meditation is a related form of this therapy that's been found to cut pain perception by one-third to one-half.
Try Prayer to Relieve Pain (if You're Religious)
Spiritually based meditation exercises were linked to greater pain tolerance in a randomized study of various forms of relaxation, in a 2005 study. In another study, Catholics placed in a functional MRI machine who were shown an icon of the Virgin Mary had lower perceived intensity of a painful stimulus. (Non-Catholics, for whom the icon presumably had less meaning, didn't achieve the same calm, distracted state.)
"There's a lot of unity and camaraderie when you're with others of the same faith," says Dr. Paul Christo of Johns Hopkins. "That's not to say it will take away all pain and discomfort, but prayer and spiritual practices reduce stress, which is associated with pain, and provide an inner strength that helps you overcome pain."
Try Breathing Techniques to Relieve Pain
Lamaze-style breathing during childbirth is a popular example of this form of mind-body awareness. A 2010 study in the journal Pain, involving women ages 45 to 65 with fibromyalgia, found that those who used slow breathing significantly reduced pain perception and negative emotions. Other research shows its effectiveness with low back pain.
Slow, deep breathing is the simplest form. Breathe in deeply on the syllable re, then exhale on the syllable lax. Keep repeating. Another example: the 4-7-8 breathing method.
Keep a Pain Journal to Relieve Pain
Lessen chronic pain by acknowledging that it exists and how it feels for you, says pain-medicine specialist Paul Christo. Record when it's good or bad and what makes it feel that way over time -- what you're doing, what kind of medication or other treatments help, what patterns that you notice, if any. By scheduling activities during times when pain is most eased, you can do more and feel better, Christo says.
Try Hypnosis to Relieve Pain
"Hypnosis is extremely underutilized," says Paul Christo of Johns Hopkins. "People fear that it's mind control that will make you strip in public, but it's nothing like that." A trained practitioner induces a daydreamlike trance (a state of deep relaxation) and uses the power of suggestion to reframe pain, such as changing a painful sensation to something cool and pleasant.
With some training and practice, many people can learn self-hypnosis. Hypnosis reduces the way the spinal cord processes pain, lowers pain intensity, and curbs the emotional response to pain. It's been shown to work well with burn victims and for the pain of diabetic neuropathy, shingles, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), irritable bowel, arthritis, low back pain, and headache. A large study published in The Lancet in 2000 found that it worked to ease pain and anxiety in surgery patients.