The medical community traditionally has relied on potent drugs to relieve severe pain. But in a number of academic settings across the country, health-care practitioners are adding another therapeutic weapon to the mix — they’re helping patients harness the healing power of their own imaginations.
The use of guided imagery, or mental images, to evoke physical benefits is perhaps the oldest form of therapy known to man, explained David E. Bresler, a founder of the Academy for Guided Imagery in Malibu, Calif. In fact, imagery is woven into the fabric of many ancient cultures’ healing rituals, he said.
Today, academic researchers are studying guided imagery’s use as an adjunct to more traditional medical treatments.
“I think it’s just the beginning, really, even though it’s been around a long time,” said Bresler, whose academy instructs clinicians, including pediatricians, in the use of imagery to evoke physiologic changes that promote healing. A traditionally trained Ph.D. neuroscientist, he first became intrigued with alternative methods of pain relief in the early 1970s as founder and director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Pain Control Unit.
While much of the ongoing research is preliminary, practitioners of guided imagery are encouraged by initial results among children and adults.
Nola Schmidt, associate professor of nursing at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind., recently completed a pilot study at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago examining guided imagery’s effect among children with pain due to sickle cell disease or stem cell transplants. Of the 17 participants, eight were randomly assigned to listen to guided-imagery tapes created especially for each child.
Most tapes were vague, allowing the children to insert different scenes each time they listened to a recording. “For example,” Schmidt said, “a tape may start out: ‘OK, we want you to relax and close your eyes, take a deep breath, feel the air go in, feel the air go out.’ ” The child is invited to imagine being in “one of your favorite places” and to describe the sights, sounds and smells he or she encounters.
Children in the experimental and control groups also kept pain diaries. Their entries recorded when and where they felt pain, what they did to feel better and how much they hurt before and after those interventions.
On a 0-to-10 scale, children in the guided-imagery group had an average post-pain intervention score of 4.3, a point lower than children in the control group. While the difference was not statistically significant, Schmidt believes it is “clinically” significant.
“If it works for you, and it reduced your pain by one point or two points, isn’t it worth it?” she asked.