One of Dr. Mackey's favorite pain-relieving techniques is love. He and colleagues recruited 15 Stanford undergraduates and had them bring in photos of their beloved and another friend. Then he scanned their brains while applying pain stimuli from a hot probe. On average, the subject reported feeling 44% less pain while focusing on their loved one than on their friend. Brain images showed they had strong activity in the nucleus accumbens, an area deep in the brain involved with dopamine and reward circuits
One technique is attention distraction, simply directing your mind away from the pain. "It's like having a flashlight in the dark—you choose what you want to focus on. We have that same power with our mind," says Ravi Prasad, a pain psychologist at Stanford.
Guided imagery, in which a patient imagines, say, floating on a cloud, also works in part by diverting attention away from pain. So does mindfulness meditation. In a study in the Journal of Neuroscience in April, researchers at Wake Forest taught 15 adults how to meditate for 20 minutes a day for four days and subjected them to painful stimuli (a probe heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit on the leg).
Brain scans before and after showed that while they were meditating, they had less activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that registers where pain is coming from, and greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a role in handling unpleasant feelings. Subjects also reported feeling 40% less pain intensity and 57% less unpleasantness while meditating.
"Our subjects really looked at pain differently after meditating. Some said, 'I didn't need to say ouch,' " says Fadel Zeidan, the lead investigator.
Techniques that help patients "emotionally reappraise" their pain rather than ignore it are particularly helpful when patients are afraid they will suffer further injury and become sedentary, experts say.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is offered at many pain-management programs, teaches patients to challenge their negative thoughts about their pain and substitute more positive behaviors.
Even getting therapy by telephone for six months helped British patients with fibromyalgia, according to a study published online this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Nearly 30% of patients receiving the therapy reported less pain, compared with 8% of those getting conventional treatments. The study noted that in the U.K., no drugs are approved for use in fibromyalgia and access to therapy or exercise programs is limited, if available at all.
Anticipating relief also seems to make it happen, research into the placebo effect has shown. In another NCCAM-funded study, 48 subjects were given either real or simulated acupuncture and then exposed to heat stimuli.
Both groups reported similar levels of pain relief—but brain scans showed that actual acupuncture interrupted pain signals in the spinal cord while the sham version, which didn't penetrate the skin, activated parts of the brain associated with mood and expectation, according to a 2009 study in the journal Neuroimage.
Experts stress that much still isn't known about pain and the brain, including whom these mind-body therapies are most appropriate for. They also say it's important that anyone who is in pain get a thorough medical examination. "You can't just say, 'Go take a yoga class.' That's not a thoughtful approach to pain management," says Dr. Briggs.