Beyond drugs, beyond exercise, beyond simply getting better are other ways to control pain. Typically referred to as complementary alternative medicine, many people consider their use to be common sense.
• At the top of the list is the ancient practice of meditation. A number of studies suggest it can help people feel less pain. In one study, published in the journal Pain, people who had some experience with mindful meditation were subjected to bouts of pain. Those who had more experience with meditating showed less activity in certain parts of their brain as they anticipated pain.
back pain. In that study, published in the British Journal of Medicine in 2008, 579 patients with lower back pain were randomly assigned to receive normal care, massage, six Alexander Technique lessons or 24 Alexander Technique lessons. Half of each group were also randomly assigned to an exercise program. Those who combined exercise with Alexander Technique lessons had less pain than those in other groups.
•Video games presented in a virtual reality format have potential as well, helping children feel less pain while being stuck with an intravenous needle. In that research, some children wore a helmet that covered their head and showed an engaging game while a control group of kids went through standard care. All children were blocked from seeing their arms. The control group had a fourfold increase in pain intensity compared with the children who watched the video games.
Jeffrey Gold, director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, presented the study at the American Pain Society's annual scientific conference last year and says there may be more at work than a significant distraction. Gold is now conducting a study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that uses functional MRIs to test the effects of virtual reality on the brain.
"Virtual reality is not a panacea — you're going to have to practice this and create new patterns in the brain," Gold says. "If you're able to train a person over several sessions, you may change the neurochemistry, and that's going to have a more permanent effect on the brain's ability to modulate pain."