Does guided imagery really control cancer-related pain?

3 answers | Last updated: Jun 27, 2011
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 65-year-old father is in a great deal of pain with stage IV esophageal cancer. The doctor says he's upped the dosage of pain medications as much as he can, but it's not enough. The nurse recommended guided imagery, but I'm not sure if we should take that seriously. Does it really work?

Expert Answers

Redwing Keyssar coordinates the Palliative Care Program for Jewish Family and Children's Services of San Francisco.

For many people, yes. Such complementary therapies can be extremely useful when helping a patient live with cancer pain, and in my experience guided meditation -- also called guided imagery -- is one of the most effective techniques. Even people who've never meditated before find they can achieve a meditative state when guided by a recorded voice, and patients find it very relaxing and soothing.

It's easy for most patients to learn and use. Guided meditation practitioners lead patients through general relaxation exercises and also help them build vivid and detailed images (often of pleasant and soothing places such as a tropical beach) in their minds. Some cancer centers now offer guided meditation classes to their patients, so you might ask about this. There are also many different guided meditation recordings for sale, as well as practitioners who can create personalized guided meditations using places and images that are meaningful to your father.

When someone goes into a deeply relaxed state, it causes chemical changes in the body. The brain releases endorphins, which soothe pain signals in the brain and nerves on the cellular level. Researchers have found that guided imagery can affect both the endocrine and nervous systems, which in turn can make the immune system function more efficiently. Some studies have even found that guided imagery helps speed healing. For example, studies have shown that when guided meditation is used prior to surgery, people heal faster. So you might want to suggest that your father practice his guided meditation before and after treatments.

There are different types of guided meditations, but all are designed to promote relaxation and reduce stress. Some are also tailored to soothe pain and promote healing by providing the listener with positive images of healing, such as picturing the sun "evaporating" pain, or white blood cells "gobbling up" cancer cells. Also, if, like many cancer patients, your father is having trouble sleeping, he can use guided meditation to soothe himself before sleep or if he wakes up in the middle of the night.

Another reason guided meditation works so well is that it is something your father can have access to on his own. He can decide when he wants to listen to his recorded meditation, which gives him a tool he can control. And he can go off by himself to do it and not be dependent on anyone else for help, which is empowering. Guided meditation doesn't work for everyone, but when it does, it tends to work very well.

If your father finds the idea of guided meditation hard to take seriously, tell him about the studies showing how well it works -- and remind him that there aren't any negative side effects, so there's no reason not to give it a try. He can always put it aside if it isn't a useful technique for him.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

Has he tried medical marijuana? A friend who has terminal cancer says it's helped her enormously.

Marinparent answered...

Please FIND ANOTHER DOCTOR. There is not reason why your dear father should be suffering. find a palliative care specialist (your local Hospice will be able to refer you, or take over). They can prescribe the amount of morphine or other pain med to keep him comfortable. It may or may not hasten his death, but if he is living in great pain, I would think both he and you would find that preferable. Some doctors are so focused on prolonging life that they cannot see what is best for the patient and the family. Best of luck to you in this journey.