How to Control Pain Using Your Mind

By Richard Asa and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 28, 2023
How to Control Pain Using Your Mind

Blocking your pain can be as simple as imagining something pleasant, counting silently, or focusing on a non-painful part of your body. Learn more.

Researchers are finding that your brain can change its structure in reaction to the sensation of pain. 

There’s the story of Michael Moskowitz, MD, a pain medicine specialist with a history of chronic pain, who fell and broke his thigh bone. While waiting for an ambulance, he felt no pain. 

He later realized that he was experiencing a “medical phenomenon” he has taught his students for years.


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“My brain simply shut off the pain,” Moskowitz says in “The Brain’s way of Healing,” a book by Norman Doidge, MD, that explores the neuroplasticity of the brain and its ability to block pain. Doidge is a Canadian-born psychiatrist and best-selling author. 

“I had first-hand experience that the brain, all on its own, can eliminate pain, just as I, a conventional pain specialist, had tried to do for patients by using drugs, injections, and electrical stimulation,” Moskowitz says in the book. 

How to control pain without medication

Pain medications can relieve pain, but they can have unpleasant or serious side effects after long-term use. Meanwhile, chronic pain can interfere with your daily life.

But your brain can shut pain off because the function of acute pain is to alert you to danger. As long as Moskowitz didn't move, he was in no danger, as far as his brain could tell, Doidge writes. 

“We now understand that the pain perception system is spread through the brain and spinal cord, too, and the brain controls how much we feel. When pain messages are sent from damaged tissue, these messages ascend to the brain only if the brain gives them 'permission,'” adds Doidge. 

That means your brain contains active control systems. It isn’t just the passive recipient of pain signals you are helpless to influence. 

There was the friend of Mary Heinricher, MD, PhD, a professor of neurological surgery and behavioral science at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

The man had tried to remove things from his barn as a wildfire approached his house in rural Montana. He hadn’t noticed that he had significant burns on his arms and legs, and it took several hours before he realized he needed to go to the hospital. His pain-inhibiting system had blocked the pain signal during a time of fight or flight.

Researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to allow chronic pain patients to "visualize" pain, writes rheumatologist, Mark Borigini, MD, in Psychology Today. “These images allow a patient to actively participate in manipulating what has heretofore been an amorphous concept. The chronic pain patient becomes empowered, whether it be through yoga, biofeedback, or meditation.” 

Controlling pain, he writes, can be as simple as imagining something pleasant, counting silently to divert your mind from the pain, focusing on a non-painful part of your body, or traveling back in time when you were pain free. 

“These tasks seem silly to some, or, at best, self-evident,” he writes. “But for some chronic pain patients they do help. A professional may be needed during the learning process; and it may take practice before these techniques have an impact on the chronic pain patient. You know you are good when you can reduce pain and increase relaxation with a few deep breaths. The sense of control that accompanies such mastery in and of itself can be responsible for a significant reduction in chronic pain.”

Mindfulness for pain

Stress reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends that people with chronic pain practice a body scan mindfulness exercise every day for 45 minutes.

You’ll lie on your back, comfortably stretched out, and close your eyes. Focus on your belly expanding when you inhale and lowering it during your exhale.

Next, focus on your left foot, noting sensations, and press your belly into the floor when you inhale. Note any pain or emotions, without expectations or judgment.

Move up your left leg. As slowly and patiently as you can, scan your entire body. Vidyamala Burch, of Manchester, England, runs a thriving practice teaching students mindfulness to address their pain. She has chronic pain herself, from two spinal injuries. 

Through mindfulness, the act of being in the moment and acknowledging thoughts and feelings, she and hundreds of students have taken control of their pain.

"The intuitive response is to turn away from it and try and get on with life in spite of your pain," she told the BBC. "With mindfulness, what we do is we turn towards it, to investigate what is actually happening in each moment.... We have adapted the 'mindful movement' so that the primary emphasis is on being aware as you move, rather than how far you can move," she says. "You go to open a door, you've got discomfort, you tense against that movement, and your pain will get worse."

To help reduce the overuse of opioid painkillers, a serious problem in the U.S., an intervention called mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement led to a 63 percent reduction in opioid misuse. 


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July 28, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN