Guided Imagery for Arthritis Pain

Your mind can be a powerful tool for reducing stress, anxiety and pain. 

Guided imagery (a mind-body technique also known as visualization) is a well-recognized and scientifically validated way to relieve pain, stress, anxiety and depression. It’s driven by the idea that if you can envision your pain receding, you can achieve it. For example, instead of reaching for the nearest bottle of pain relievers, you can close your eyes, breathe deeply and visualize your pain as a glowing orb floating serenely away from your body.  

How Guided Imagery Works 

“Guided imagery helps the body lower its circulating levels of stress hormones, particularly cortisol,” explains Patrice Rancour, RN, a guided imagery practitioner at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center integrative medicine department.  

When you’re under stress, your body’s fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in. Your body releases a rush of cortisol and other stress hormones that prepare you to either run or face the threat at hand. This hormone rush is useful in the short term, but when it continues to fire day after day, it can rev up inflammation levels in your body. “Mind-body practices can calm down the sympathetic nervous system, which is our stress nervous system,” Rancour says. 

During guided imagery, you imagine a peaceful scene that covers all your senses — from what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell to what you’re thinking and feeling. It’s also helpful to visualize your body as you wish it would be. For example, you might imagine yourself running through a field, your joints limber and pain-free. As you sprint, you feel the rush of the wind in your hair, the sweat on your brow and the pump of your arms pushing you forward. You imagine feeling happy and carefree.  

Immersing yourself in a scene puts you in a deep state of relaxation and drives down your anxiety and cortisol levels. As a result, “your perception of pain goes down,” says Rancour. 

Is Guided Imagery Really Effective? 

Research shows guided imagery may provide relief from painful conditions like arthritis. Studies also show it may reduce circulating cortisol levels, ease stress and anxiety, improve physical function and reduce pain. 

A 2015 study in Pain Management Nursing reviewed seven randomized-controlled trials of guided imagery for arthritis and other joint diseases. All seven studies showed statistically significant reductions in pain. The review also showed that guided imagery improved movement and function, and reduced patients’ need for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain medications. 

Making guided meditation part of your arthritis treatment plan may help reduce your need for medical interventions. “The better you get at this, the less you may need multiple medicines for breakthrough pain, or you may start sleeping better at night without sleeping pills,” Rancour says. 

Getting Started With Guided Imagery 

Another advantage to guided imagery is how easy it is to practice. It only takes 10 minutes, and you can do it anywhere you want.  

Plenty of pre-recorded guided imagery sessions are available online or CD. To find guided imagery practices for a variety of conditions, visit the Ohio State Integrative Medicine website. You can also find a local practitioner to guide you through the exercise. Ask your doctor or mental health professional for a recommendation of someone with guided imagery training in your area. If you need more options, check out Imagery International for podcasts and a list of practitioners. 

Practicing guided imagery can become a daily habit that yields big health rewards. “It’s like eating your five servings of vegetables every day,” says Rancour. “It’s another wellness practice you can incorporate into your daily regimen, and it acts as a tonic.” 

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