Psychological treatments for pain management

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Learn about psychological treatments used to treat pain, such as hypnosis, biofeedback, and imagery.

Mother and infant sitting on bed

There are many psychological treatments available to treat children’s pain, including education, counselling, imagery, hypnosis, biofeedback, and behavioural strategies. These treatments are directed at the emotional, intellectual, and behavioural factors that influence pain and disability.

Pain is not only related to the extent of physical injuries or the severity of disease. There is always a psychological response to pain: what children and families understand, what they do and how they feel, all affect pain. For example, if a child believes that their pain means that they are seriously hurt or has a serious illness, they will feel a stronger pain. On the other hand, if a child hurts themselves during a fierce game of hockey, they may not even notice it until after their shift or the whole game is over.

It makes sense, therefore, that we can affect how much pain we feel and how much it upsets us by changing our understanding, behaviours, or emotions.

Psychological methods aim to reduce how much pain we feel and how much it affects our lives. Pain often takes over a person’s life and interferes with many activities such as going to school, exercising or spending time with friends. Because there is less in their lives to focus on, they focus more on the pain and a vicious cycle develops.

With any chronic illness, including chronic pain, the goal should always be to get life back to as normal as possible – to take back control from the pain. Psychological methods target the thinking, behaving, and feeling components of pain. These methods are also useful because children can use them at home, school, or play. This means that the child or young person with pain can feel that they are taking over control of the pain from the professionals and taking back control of their life from the pain.

Keeping children informed

One of the most powerful psychological methods of pain reduction is to provide age appropriate information about what is happening, what the pain means, and what children can do to help control the pain. For example, all children should be provided with information about what they can expect during medical procedures. This information should be honest and geared towards the child’s level of understanding and interest. Parents need to tell their children the truth if a procedure will hurt. Procedural information should describe to your child what is happening in broad terms such as “they are cleaning the wound,” “the nurse is applying anaesthetic cream or medicine that will numb your skin,” and so on.

It is important to tell children what they might see, feel, smell, and hear during the procedure. But you can tell them in words that will not frighten them, using their past experiences or familiar sensations as a guide. For example, you might describe a needle as sharp and pricking, and say “sometimes it feels like a sting to me, I wonder if it will feel like a little sting or a little cool to you?” In this way, your child focuses on the actual sensation they experience and not the fear associated with pain.

Most of the techniques described in this section overlap. They all are designed to reduce pain through relaxation. Many of them can be combined, which may produce a better pain-relieving effect.

Consult with a member of the health-care team or your pain management team for recommendations about which of the techniques in this section will work best for your child. In some cases, some of these techniques may not be suitable for your child. Members of the health-care team, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, or other pain specialists, can help lead you and your child through the recommended techniques so that you may become familiar with their proper and most effective application.

Last updated: September 15th 2009