Art Therapy For Chronic Pain

  • Jason Ha Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery - MBBS, University of Bristol

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Pain; is a sensation that causes physical discomfort; it scares us, drives us to move, and makes us protect others and ourselves from it. Chronic pain is a condition where individuals have a certain baseline of pain constantly, making it a challenging state of being for the affected, both physically and mentally.1 While getting medical treatment is often the first step to addressing this condition, it often requires complementary therapies to provide significant relief. Art therapy, an upcoming therapeutic method has gained traction for providing promising results by harnessing the power of artistic expression.2 You don’t need to be an artist to benefit from the therapy, it aims to help you channel your unique creative expressions to understand the complexities of your chronic pain. In this article, we shall try to understand what chronic pain is in a medical sense and how art therapy can help. Whether you are suffering from it or one of your loved ones is, it is helpful to understand this complex condition and what can help.

Understanding Chronic Pain

Imagine that you have the flu. You have pain in the joints, you’re constantly tired, cannot eat or sleep comfortably, not able to walk, or do even the simplest tasks at a 100%. Now imagine having a constant baseline of this feeling every day. That is how chronic pain feels like. Chronic pain is the interplay of physical discomfort and emotional and mental strain. It can persist over weeks or months and sometimes years. It is usually associated with conditions like arthritis or fibromyalgia, but sometimes there is no concrete cause.

Affecting millions of people in the UK alone; chronic pain is not just a symptom but also an ongoing experience that affects all aspects of our life including how we perceive the world and navigate our daily activities. There is a significant psychological impact that often worsens the quality of life of the individual. The first step is getting medical help to address the physiological cause of the symptoms, and getting started on the medication and physical therapies. However, these therapies may not completely address the emotional aspect of the condition necessitating complementary methods to make managing this pain easier. Art therapy has emerged as a promising method to manage chronic pain.

So, what is art therapy?

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that promotes healing and processing deep emotions or trauma through creative expression. Some emotions cannot be expressed to their fullest extent through words, which is why art therapy provides a safe space to express them through art forms, which could be drawing, painting, sculpting or other creative endevours.4

This however does not mean that you need to be an artist to experience the benefits; the focus is not on creating artistic masterpieces, but the process itself. The artwork allows for a visual representation of thoughts, feelings and emotions, unbound by semantics. This non-verbal way of communication is particularly beneficial for complex life experiences such as chronic pain.

The goal of art therapy is to engage the persons creative processes to improve mental resilience, promote self-awareness and thereby enhance a person's overall state of being. Creating a safe space can empower individuals to explore their inner selves and heal from their unconscious traumas.2

Art therapy for chronic pain: how does it actually help?

Living with chronic pain presents a myriad of challenges; both physical and mental. While medications and physiotherapy deal with the physical aspect, art therapy can help heal the emotional scars of the illness. Let's explore some specific ways that this creative approach can help.5

Emotional expression and catharsis

Chronic pain is not just the sensation of pain; it encompasses a wide range of emotions from frustration and sadness to anxiety and isolation. Art therapy provides a safe space for individuals to unabashedly ‘vent out’ their emotions by externalising them to make sense of their feelings. Research studies have suggested that this creative expression can provide an emotional catharsis; promoting a sense of relief 2,5.

Distraction and mindfulness in pain management

With chronic pain, ‘pain’ is at the forefront of individuals’ thoughts. This persistent focus on the feeling of discomfort can often augment the feelings of hopelessness. Creative endeavours help by distracting from the state of pain, providing a moment of respite and mental reprieve. This could contribute to the reduction of perceived pain levels and enhance overall well-being.

Moreover, art therapy encourages self-awareness and grounding the individual in the present. Mindfulness has been proven to improve pain management and coping strategies, easing the mental burden associated with chronic pain. Seeing unconscious emotions take a physical form in the artwork can help individuals better cope with their frustrations.2,5

Empowerment and reclaiming a sense of control

Chronic pain comes with a sense of powerlessness- a feeling that the pain dictates one's life. Creatively expressing these feelings into a physical art project fosters a sense of agency, allowing them to make choices and decisions in a realm where they hold creative authority.

Studies suggest that making art can empower individuals to explore beyond the label of chronic pain, influencing how they perceive the pain and navigate relationships beyond their disabilities.

Art therapy techniques for chronic pain

So what happens in these sessions? Now that we know how art therapy works, let's see some specific techniques used to empower individuals.5

Guided art exercises for relaxation

Structured activities led by a qualified art therapist facilitate relaxation and emotional exploration. These exercises focus on controlled and deliberate movements that promote a sense of catharsis and subsequent calmness. For people with chronic pain, these exercises help divert their focus from physical sensations. Guided art exercises are proven to reduce stress and improve emotional well-being. Guided painting or drawing exercises for example can provide a sense of relaxation from the challenges of chronic pain.2,5

Expressive art activities

Expressive art activities are more unstructured; allowing individuals free rein on their creative expression and thereby their emotions. The goal is for the artwork to become a visual expression of the pain and the emotions associated with it. These exercises are known to improve emotional intelligence and facilitate non-verbal means of communicating feelings. By exploring emotions through creative means, individuals can paint their emotional landscapes and gain insight into navigating their psyche.2,5

Integrating painful experiences into creative projects

Individuals with chronic pain are encouraged to, quite literally, paint their experiences of chronic pain. This includes using symbolism, shapes and colours to create abstract representations of their pain. Research by Ciasca et al. (2018) emphasises the importance of integrating pain into creative projects, which results in a deeper understanding of one's psyche and processing of negative emotions. This promotes a holistic understanding of emotions associated with pain and confronting their understanding of their chronic pain.7

How to get started with art therapy for chronic pain

The first step is acknowledging the need to heal and just getting started.

Finding qualified art therapists

Engaging with a qualified art therapist who can offer a safe and structured plan of action is vital. The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) is a valuable resource to find certified art therapists in your area. Once you find the therapist, you will have the option of scheduling an initial consultation, where you can discuss details of your condition, your expectations and goals for the healing process. This dialogue sets the foundation for the therapeutic relationship.

Exploring self-guided art activities at home

Sometimes a self-guided approach may be best suited to begin your journey. This could involve starting small self-guided art activities such as doodling, colouring or experimenting with various textures. Gradually, more complex exercises can be added under the guidance of a qualified professional.8

Considerations and precautions

While art therapy offers a complementary treatment to chronic pain, there could be some factors to ensure a safe and successful experience.

Discussing art therapy with healthcare providers

Integration into the overall care plan

Healthcare providers including general practitioners and pain specialists should be informed about the integration of art therapy in the individual's care plan.

Consultation for physical limitations

Individuals with chronic pain may have some physical limitations that need consideration. Healthcare providers need to sign off on the art activities to be performed if necessary, to accommodate any restrictions.

Ensuring a comfortable and supportive environment

Safe and supportive space

While art therapy ensures a safe space emotionally, it is vital that the physical space is conducive and appropriately tailored to the individual's needs as well. There must be adequate lighting, comfortable seating areas and surroundings conducive to relaxation and openness.

Managing emotional responses

Art therapy may uncover strong emotions. This necessitates appropriate coping strategies to be given to the individuals to safely navigate emotional challenges.

Research and evidence

Art therapy is evidenced to promote positive outcomes when integrated with the individual's care plan. Some themes that come up in research include the following.

Stress reduction and emotional wellbeing

Studies have demonstrated that art therapy has proven to be associated with reduced stress, improved coping ability and overall, an improved state of being. Engaging in guided exercises has been associated with positive outcomes by providing a constructive outlet for emotional expression.5,7

Mindfulness and pain management

By grounding the person in the present and improving self-awareness, art therapy has proven to improve pain management and potentially influence the person’s perception of pain.5,7

FAQs

Does art therapy actually work?

Yes, art therapy has been found to be effective for many people. It helps express emotions, reduce stress, and provide a way to cope with difficult feelings.

Why is art therapy powerful?

Art therapy is powerful because it allows people to express themselves creatively. Making art can help process emotions, reduce anxiety, and bring a sense of empowerment.

What are some examples of art therapy?

Examples include drawing, painting, sculpting, and other creative activities guided by a therapist. The focus is on the process of creating rather than the final artwork.

When is art therapy most effective?

Art therapy can be effective in various situations, such as dealing with stress, trauma, or emotional challenges. It's particularly useful when words alone may not be enough to express complex feelings.

How long does art therapy take to be effective?

The time it takes varies for each person. Some may feel benefits after a few sessions, while others might take longer. Consistency and openness to the process are essential.

Who benefits most from art therapy?

Art therapy can benefit people of all ages, especially those facing emotional struggles, trauma, or stress. It's valuable for individuals who find it challenging to express themselves verbally.

Why is art therapy better than talk therapy?

Art therapy is not necessarily "better" than talk therapy; they serve different purposes. Art therapy offers a creative outlet for those who struggle with verbal expression, providing an alternative and equally effective way to address emotions. It can be particularly beneficial when words alone may fall short.

Summary

Chronic pain is the constant persistence of pain in an individual’s life. This complex condition could be caused by disorders such as fibromyalgia or arthritis and influence the sufferer’s physical and mental well-being significantly. While medications and physiotherapies are essential as the first step to managing this disorder, art therapy is one of the complementary therapies that can be used to heal emotional scars. Art therapy benefits the individual by facilitating emotional liberation, encouraging mindfulness and distraction from the pain and empowering individuals to reclaim control over their perception of the pain. Integrating art therapy in care plans for chronic pain has yielded positive outcomes in individuals' healing journeys.

References

  • Ospina M, Harstall C. Prevalence of chronic pain: an overview. Edmonton, Alberta: Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research; 2002 Dec.
  • Angheluta AM, Lee BK. Art therapy for chronic pain: Applications and future directions. Canadian Journal of counselling and psychotherapy. 2011 Jan 17;45(2).
  • Fayaz A, Croft P, Langford RM, Donaldson LJ, Jones GT. Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population studies. BMJ open. 2016 Jun 1;6(6):e010364.
  • Malchiodi CA, editor. Art therapy and health care. Guilford Press; 2012 Oct 19
  • Raudenská J, Šteinerová V, Vodičková Š, Raudenský M, Fulková M, Urits I, Viswanath O, Varrassi G, Javůrková A. Arts Therapy and Its Implications in Chronic Pain Management: A Narrative Review. Pain and Therapy. 2023 Dec;12(6):1309-37.
  • Hass-Cohen N, Bokoch R, Goodman K, Conover KJ. Art therapy drawing protocols for chronic pain: Quantitative results from a mixed method pilot study. The Arts in Psychotherapy. 2021 Apr 1;73:101749.
  • Ciasca, Eliana C., et al. ‘Art Therapy as an Adjuvant Treatment for Depression in Elderly Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial’. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, vol. 40, no. 3, Feb. 2018, pp. 256–63. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1590/1516-4446-2017-2250.
  • Crawford C, Lee C, Bingham J. Sensory art therapies for the self-management of chronic pain symptoms. Pain Medicine. 2014 Apr 1;15(S1):S66-75.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Prajakta Choudhari

Postgraduate Degree, Public Health, University of Chester

Dr. Prajakta Choudhari, a public health doctor with a penchant for writing, brings a unique blend of medical expertise and storytelling prowess to the table. With a stethoscope in one hand and a pen in the other, she navigates the intricate realms of healthcare, education, and community engagement with equal parts compassion and creativity. Armed with a PG Certificate in Public Health and an MBBS degree, Prajakta has journeyed from the corridors of clinical care to content creation, seamlessly bridging the gap between complexities of medicine and public understanding. Her passion for driving positive change in healthcare is matched only by her knack for crafting compelling narratives that educate, empower, and entertain. Through her work as a Medical Writer and Health Educator, Prajakta strives to empower individuals with knowledge while destigmatising sensitive health topics. When she's not busy dissecting medical jargon, you can find her creating comics, mentoring aspiring healthcare professionals, or simply enjoying a cup of chai with a good book in hand.

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