One method that I am particularly fond of are (broadly stated) distractions. Now, I am fully aware that not everyone benefits from the same tactics in pain management. If that were true, there would be one miracle pill that we could all take once a week and skip through the rest of our merry days. However, there is a possibility that one or two of my methods may work. And even if they do not, I would like to prime your own creative pumps to see what you can come up with.
From a neurological standpoint, distractions are useful in pain management because there are two main parts to the pain experience. The pain sensation (where the pain is initiated by the nocioceptor (pain neuron) at the point of aggravation) and the pain perception (where our central nervous system determines how uncomfortable the pain is; how pain is experienced by the individual). Distractions can lower pain perception because they divert resources used for pain perception and lower the overall effect pain sensations have on pain perception. To give a very basic example, if you are having a pain in your lower right abdomen but pinch yourself on your left arm, you will feel both pains at a slightly lower level than either pain would be alone. This is partially because of neurological restrictions in pain signaling (which I will not delve into) and partially because of diverted attention. There is only so much attention the brain has; when you spread it out, you have to take it from one place to use it in another.
I have a few basic tenets I follow when brainstorming for effective, reliable, and valuable distractions. The following lists characteristics/qualities that make an activity/behavior a good distraction for me.
- Something that calls for a high amount of attention out of pure enjoyment. It should be easy to focus upon and easy to lose oneself in. It should be interesting enough to suck me in.
- Something that requires focus on another part of my body, other than what hurts. It requires coordination, practice for muscle memory, and not painful. Exercise is a distraction, but not for super painful days where it could cause more damage than benefit.
- Something fulfilling. It may not be particularly enjoyable at that moment, but it is important enough to me that I focus on it out of self interest. Not saying selfishly--think of something that has so much self investment that your incentive to finish it is especially powerful.
The list alone may not be particularly helpful so I want to give some examples as well. I will try and aim for two each! Obviously, there will be some overlap between them, but there should be some distractions that better represent one quality than another.
For #1, I offer my two best distractions: time with very good friends and games.
Good friends can make you laugh, smile, cry, whatever, but they grab your attention rather enthusiastically. Playing Harry Potter Scene It with my boyfriend is especially distracting, because we get to laugh and fight over the game and how much bizarre trivia I retain concerning the stories. Talking with friends is easy to lose yourself in and can be a great distraction from the feeling of knives in your gut. It's fun, socializing, and makes me forget.
Additionally, when I am feeling less than social, video games have been a great distraction. There are actually studies that show that video games are an effective method for pain management and lower pain perception, making it beneficial in health care (e.g.,Griffiths, 2005). For me, a game simply has to have a good plot and motivating. Whenever I am having a more than bearable pain day, I retreat to my computer or PlayStation and enjoy some gaming time. One of the great things offered in gaming is the variety of video games available. There are games of varying types, difficulties, and styles for pretty much anyone. I highly recommend it for anyone in pain.
For #2, excluding exercise, I have music playing and humming.
My two instruments are piano and guitar. I admit that I am no prodigy in either art, but I do greatly enjoy playing. It is not only incredibly relaxing, but the focus required for my fingers distracts my mind from the pain it is trying to process. Especially when learning a new song, which requires an especially high level of attention. The audio and motor involvement in what I am doing can pull my sensory attention away from the spot that is hurting.
Humming was a distraction I discovered by accident really. I think I was groaning/moaning uncontrollably and it was making the pain even worse. So I started groaning louder but forcing a tune. Then I was humming. And suddenly the pain lessened. Humming, though simple and easy, does require focus to hit the right notes and devout the correct time to each sound. And it uses your diaphragm, lungs, throat, etc., so it took away focus from my lower body. Now, whenever I'm in a lot of pain, I try to play name that tune with my friends. It distracts me from my pain and allows me to disguise my groans.
For #3, I offer learning and writing.
I really am a nerd at heart and always enjoy learning something new. I try to spread that thirst into different areas and try different hobbies, different books, different subjects. Even if a text is somewhat dry, I want the information badly enough that I dive right in. I do not lose myself in education in the same way I do recreation, but it is distracting. I want to be knowledgeable badly enough that things that would be boring otherwise call my attention.
Writing is the most difficult one to explain because it is the most personal. Although my readers here get a glimpse at my site entries that are (I am embarrassed to say) far from polished/perfect, my real passion is stories. And, if anyone has written, they know that story writing in itself can be a painful, difficult, and trying process. Almost as if I am trading one type of suffering for another! But I want so dearly to be a writer that I feel in another place when I work on my stories. It is my goal, my ambition. So that diverts my attention enough to make it through a bad day.
These are not all my distractions, but I hope this has been interesting and helpful. If anyone has any suggestions for other distractions, I would love to list them along here. Thank you and I hope you have a pain -free day!
***EDIT: I've realized that after writing this and some of the response I have gotten, that I should do an entry purely on the mechanics of pain and how we experience them. I'll try and make it easy to understand/read from a layman's perspective. Knowing how my pain actually happens in my PNS & CNS was a huge benefit for me. I"ll try to pass that along.