Specialists Find Art Could Relieve Chronic Pain

Researchers have discovered that viewing art at a museum, at a concert, or while immersed in a wonderful novel may improve your mood and reduce pain.

According to recent studies, up to 20% of Americans suffer from chronic pain, a disease that is notoriously difficult to cure. Martha Sommers, a physician, created art to cope with her personal agony after suffering a terrible accident.

“When my pain is most intrusive, it is by drawing that I get the best break. From layering the pastel hues, detailing with pencils, and accentuating highlights with gel pens; my intense focus temporarily overrides the pain messages to my brain,”  she says in a recent blog post. “That this break in the pain cycle creates beauty is a wonderful side effect, that I am now exploring for art’s own sake. And something I so wish for my patients with similar challenges.” 

Opioids help alleviate pain, but experts believe the cost, both individually and societally, is much too great. Pain experts are increasingly resorting to a multidisciplinary strategy in their hunt for solutions, including psychotherapies and alternative treatments alongside medications. Doctors, on the other hand, may have one underutilized weapon in their toolbox: art.

Art as Therapy

While specialists aren't sure how art might relieve pain, they do know it can benefit in a number of ways. The most obvious benefit is that it distracts you from your suffering. This isn't merely an issue of diversion, though it certainly helps, as Sommers discovered.

One of the most annoying aspects of chronic pain is that it takes over your focus and your thoughts. Patients experience a loss of control, and their thoughts can spiral and become apocalyptic, swiftly transforming pain from tolerable to infuriating. The arts can aid with regaining control.

Sommer's experience would be understood by researchers who have examined these consequences. One research discovered that cancer patients had less pain following a brief bedside painting instruction. Several studies have demonstrated that different types of art — music, dancing, theatre, or simply staring at a painting — might help people manage with pain better.

The National Endowment for the Arts even proposed using the arts to combat the opioid issue in its 2020 report. According to the paper, “arts-based interventions should be considered among potential complementary approaches for managing pain and preventing and treating SUD [substance use disorder].”

Pain Centers and Museums

At the moment, your doctor may not write you a prescription for a packet of paints, and your insurance company may not authorize an annual membership to your local art gallery. However, Ian Koebner, director of Integrative Pain Management at UC Davis Medical Center, is working on it.

In a 2018 study, Koebner and colleagues determined that a collaboration between academic pain centers and museums is feasible and desirable. Koebner recently teamed with the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, on a well-received initiative that uses individualized in-person tours (now available through Zoom) to reduce pain and social isolation in persons living with chronic pain.

“An appreciation for the arts’ transformative potential is not new. However, curating arts experiences for and with individuals living with persistent pain, along with the rigorous, interdisciplinary and inclusive evaluation of these experiences is novel,” adds Koebner.

Koebner arranged a symposium earlier this year that featured scientists, health care and museum experts, as well as those who suffer from chronic pain. The purpose of the gathering was to inspire an interdisciplinary network of specialists to create pain-treatment strategies using the arts.

“The arts may be uniquely positioned to help individuals imagine what is possible for themselves and society, to inspire people to live with resilience and creativity,” says Koebner.

The arts may help patients cope with discomfort, but they can also go beyond that. There is also a need for society to cultivate compassion for individuals who are in suffering. Artists like Eugenie Lee and Justus Harris utilize art to investigate and portray what it's like to live with chronic disease and chronic pain, transforming pain from a personal to a community experience.

“The arts may be a valuable mechanism for helping society, health care professionals, and the public alike to be more educated and compassionate about the lived experience of pain,” Koebner adds.

Addressing the opioid crisis and assisting those who are in pain will need a number of treatments as well as a communal effort. We may begin at the museum.