Guided Imagery for Arthritis


Your mind can be a powerful tool for relieving achy joints.

Imagine waking up one morning with joints so stiff and achy you can barely move them. Instead of reaching for the nearest bottle of pain relievers, you close your eyes, breathe deeply and visualize your pain as a glowing orb floating serenely away from your body.

This scenario might sound too out-there to possibly work. Yet guided imagery (otherwise known as visualization) is a well-recognized and scientifically validated way to relieve pain, stress, anxiety and depression.

Guided imagery is part of a suite of mind-body techniques (which include meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and biofeedback) that harness the power of your thoughts to induce better physical health. It’s driven by the idea that if you can envision your pain receding, you can achieve it.

Mind Over Pain

“This technique is about helping the body lower its circulating levels of stress hormones, particularly cortisol,” explains Patrice Rancour, RN, who teaches guided imagery in the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center integrative medicine department in Columbus.

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 ratchet up inflammation levels in your body. “What we’re trying to do with mind-body practices is calm down the sympathetic nervous system, which is our stress nervous system,” Rancour says.

During a guided imagery session, you close your eyes, relax and imagine a scene that incorporates all of your senses. “It involves prompts that elicit sights, sounds, thoughts, emotions and even the feeling of moving your body in space,” says Peter Giacobbi, Jr., PhD, associate professor of sport and exercise physiology at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

While in a state of deep relaxation, you 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.

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Immersing yourself in the scene makes you believe you can accomplish it, and eases your stress in the process. “It’s putting yourself into a state of mind where you experience such deep relaxation that your anxiety level goes down, your cortisol level goes down, so your perception of pain goes down,” Rancour says.

Does Guided Imagery Work?

Science is backing up the benefits of guided imagery. According to research, the practice can provide relief from painful conditions like arthritis. Studies show it reduces circulating cortisol levels, eases stress and anxiety, improves physical function, and reduces pain.

In 2015, Giacobbi and his colleagues released a study in the journal Pain Management Nursing. They reviewed seven randomized-controlled trials of guided imagery for arthritis and other joint diseases. “All seven studies showed statistically significant reductions in pain,” Giacobbi says. The practice also improved movement and function, and reduced patients’ need for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain medications.

One goal of integrating mind-body practices into your arthritis treatment regimen is that they may reduce your reliance on medical interventions. “The better you get at this, what starts happening is you might not require as many medicines for breakthrough pain, or maybe you start sleeping better at night without sleeping pills,” Rancour says.

How to Get Started

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

Another advantage to guided imagery is how easy it is to do. Each session takes only 10 minutes, and you can practice anywhere you want. “It’s 10 minutes of sitting and focusing, which isn’t too much to ask of people,” Rancour says.

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

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