Chronic pain is the sort of thing that follows sufferers around all day, always tapping them on the shoulder to remind them of its presence: Hey, I’m here, you hurt, you’re miserable! So telling these people that ignoring their pain will make them feel better may sound absurd at first. The thing is: it just might work.
Johns Hopkins researchers in psychiatry and behavioral sciences just published a study that explores the vicious cycle of chronic pain. Essentially, researchers say, dwelling on the pain disturbs sleep; less sleep equals more pain… and the cycle begins again. And a lot of that misery is going on inside the patient’s head — which is not the same as saying that it doesn’t exist. Studies have shown that focusing on pain (especially dwelling on it in a negative way) makes pain feel worse; doctors call this “pain catastrophizing.” And messing with sleep patterns has also been shown to make people more sensitive to pain.
So what’s to be done? The researchers suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment that tries to uproot entrenched thinking patterns, may help disrupt the vicious cycle of pain-sleep disturbance-more pain — without (or as a complement to) medication. “It may sound simple, but you can change the way you feel by changing the way you think,” said Luis Buenaver, the lead researcher on the study.