Using Distraction to Manage Chronic Pain

You may think there's nothing that could distract you from focusing on your chronic pain. But have you ever had a throbbing headache, sat down to watch a television program and then forgotten that you were hurting? It’s happened to many of us, and it is a great example of how powerful the mind is when it comes to pain control. A key strategy for managing chronic pain is to learn distraction techniques.

Woman reading a book on the sofa
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Is the Pain All in Your Head?

Sometimes people think that pain is all in their head. In part, they are correct. Pain is sensed in the outer areas of the body through specialized nerves called nociceptors and is then interpreted in the brain. How much attention the brain will give to those pain signals depends on what else is going on at the time. If you are in a crowded area with many things you need to pay attention to, such as an airport, you may feel the same pain differently than if you are in a quiet room with no other distractions.

Your brain can only focus its attention in so many areas at one time. Pain sensations compete for attention with all of the other things going on around you. Just how much attention your brain gives each thing depends on a number of factors, including how long you have been hurting and your current mood.

What does this mean for you? Well, if you are having nagging pain that is not completely controlled by medication, you may have another strategy for your pain management—distraction.

Useful Distraction Strategies

Everyone has strategies that work for them. Like pain medication, however, you may have to try several things before you find the distraction technique that is right for you. Here are some ideas to get you started on using distraction techniques to manage your chronic pain.

  • Watch your favorite television program
  • Call a friend and chat about anything other than pain
  • Read a book
  • Participate in a relaxing hobby, such as knitting or card-making
  • Do a challenging word puzzle
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Play a video game
  • Meditate

Will distraction techniques take your pain away completely? Probably not. But they will help you devote some attention to other things, and perhaps make your pain easier to manage. When you are living with chronic pain, every pain management strategy helps.

As always, you should talk to your healthcare provider if you are having breakthrough pain, especially if it is new to you.

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By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.