How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Treat Pain

Can mind-power reduce power chronic pain has over you? Experts say it can and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is among the best keys to do it.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

The National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists defines CBT as "a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do." Cognitive Behavioral terapists work on the belief that people create their own experiences by the way they think and that changing their thoughts will lead to better experiences.

Pain is a complex physical and emotional reaction to unpleasant stimulation. When an individual is in chronic pain due to disease, injury, surgery, or some other reason, he develops emotional responses like anxiety, negative anticipation, stress, fatigue, and depression, all of which can amplify pain. When patients learn CBT, however, they learn specific skills and techniques that help them recognize their emotional triggers, thought process, and reactions and change them to reframe their pain experience.

According to a study published by the American Academy of Neurology, CBT can be especially helpful to treat patients diagnosed with chronic pain of unknown origin. Their pain is absolutely real, but the cause of their pain is not identifiable. Study authors say patients with unexplained pain, dizziness, and weakness make up one-third of all patients seen in doctors' offices. The AAN research found that when patients received CBT either alone or with other pain therapies, they reported greater improvement than if they received only their usual pain treatments.

While many studies have shown that CBT can reduce pain, many patients are reluctant to use this therapy because they don't think their pain is caused by psychological factors. And in fact, they might be right. CBT doesn't attempt to explain away their pain as being all in their head, but instead, teaches them new ways of dealing with it. By better understanding their pain and learning new ways to think about and respond to it, patients are better prepared to accept their symptoms and the role of pain in their life.

How It Works

CBT takes many different forms but all involve identifying pain-related thought processes, problem solving techniques, relaxation techniques, coping skills, and support to apply do-it-yourself therapeutic skills to your own life. For example, if a patient with chronic migraines becomes anxious, anticipates crippling pain, and feels helpless at the first signs of a migraine, her emotional response might increase her pain experience. If instead, she uses CBT skills to identify how she's thinking about her pain, reframe her thinking, and help reduce her pain, studies show, her pain experience will diminish.  

That's the power of the mind. If you think something is going to be horrible, then it probably will be. If you think, however, it will be manageable (even if you can't eliminate the pain) and you have the power and skills to deal with it, studies show, you'll probably be right.

Ask your doctor if CBT might work for you and how to find a good therapist in your area.   Then, start making the mind-body connection to improve your chronic pain and put the power back in your own hands.



National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists

American Academy of Neurology, 2011, July 27 Online edition Neurology®
New therapy may help people with unexplained symptoms of pain, weakness and fatigue.