New Study Finds Reading Can Help With Chronic Pain

New Study Finds Reading Can Help With Chronic Pain

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Reading-University of Liverpool

Hold onto your hats, book club fans: researchers have found that shared reading can be a useful therapy for chronic pain sufferers.

The study compared Shared Reading (SR) – a literature-based intervention developed by the national charity The Reader – to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as an intervention for chronic pain sufferers.

Chronic pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage persisting for more than six months.

Usually pain is picked up by specialized cells in your body, and impulses are sent through the nervous system to the brain. What happens in people with chronic pain, however, is that other nerves are recruited into this ‘pain’ pathway which start to fire off messages to the brain when there is no physical stimulus or damage. But the body can ‘unjoin’ again. Drugs and CBT are both ways to convince the brain to send new messages back to the body.

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CBT is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. It’s most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can be useful for other mental and physical health problems. But CBT’s benefits, while useful are shown by recent research to be both limited and short-term.

Shared Reading is used in a range of environments that have similarities with chronic pain, in that the conditions involved can often be chronic and unsolvable, as in the case of dementia, prisons, and severe mental illness.

The model is based on small groups coming together weekly to read literature – short stories, novels, and poetry – together aloud. The reading material ranges across genres and period, and is chosen for its intrinsic interest, not pre-selected with a particular ‘condition’ in mind.

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Regular pauses are taken to encourage participants to reflect on what is being read, on the thoughts or memories the book or poem has stirred, or on how the reading matter relates to their own lives.

Group members participate voluntarily, usually in relation to what is happening in the text itself, and what may be happening within themselves as individuals (personal feelings and thoughts, memories and experiences), responding to the shared presence of the text within social group discussion.

CBT allowed participants to exchange personal histories of living with chronic pain in ways which validated their experience. However, in CBT, participants focused exclusively on their pain with ‘no thematic deviation’.

In SR, by contrast, the literature was a trigger to recall and expression of diverse life experiences – of work, childhood, family members, relationships — related to the entire life-span, not merely the time-period affected by pain, or the time-period pre-pain as contrasted with life in the present. This in itself has a potentially therapeutic effect in helping to recover a whole person, not just an ill one.

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As part of the study participants with severe chronic pain symptoms were recruited by a pain clinic. A 5-week CBT group and a 22-week SR group for chronic pain patients ran in parallel, with CBT group-members joining the SR group after the completion of CBT.

The study found that CBT showed participants ‘managing’ emotions by means of systematic techniques, where SR turned the passive experience of suffering emotion into articulate contemplation of painful concerns. The combination of the two created a strategic therapy treatment for chronic pain.

“Our study indicated that shared reading could potentially be an alternative to CBT in bringing into conscious awareness areas of emotional pain otherwise passively suffered by chronic pain patients,” said Dr. Josie Billington of the Centre for Research into Reading.

“The encouragement of greater confrontation and tolerance of emotional difficulty that Sharing Reading provides makes it valuable as a longer-term follow-up or adjunct to CBT’s concentration on short-term management of emotion.”

(Source: University of Liverpool)

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