Using the Arts to Treat Chronic Pain

Using the Arts to Treat Chronic Pain

By Ed Coghlan

“I’m still in pain, but I’m a lot less angry about it.”

That’s how a participant at the recent Women in Pain Conference described herself after meeting Ping Ho who is Founding Director of UCLArts and Healing, which transforms lives through creative expression.

She took the women (and some men) at the conference through activities used by creative arts therapists.

“A lot of what I do is talk about letting go of self-judgment,” she told the National Pain Report in an interview last week. “In this case I was helping them letting their self-judgment take a vacation.”

In other words, it’s ok to “love yourself”.

She has a Masters in counseling and a Masters in public health and has merged those two disciplines with a deep appreciation of what the arts can do to help change peoples’ lives.

It started by folks drawing on an illustration of a body where they were hurting.

Then Ping Ho went to work.

She spoke about body language-“what our bodies tell people about ourselves” and then took the conference attendees through a body hugging exercise.


“To reinforce that it’s ok to love yourself,” she said.

They warmed up with imagery, listened to music and “imagined moving without self consciousness.”

Visualization is important for athletes and actors, “if you see it you can become it”. So why wouldn’t it work for chronic pain patients?

“People in chronic pain have either experienced trauma or the pain itself is the trauma,” she said.

A lot of the work was done in the group, a shared experience among chronic pain sufferers, and the active engagement had many people smiling at the end.

“At the end, the attendees drew again on the body illustration sheet and it showed they felt better.”

The group dynamic was very powerful.

As Cynthia Toussaint, Founder and Spokesperson of For Grace told us.

“Ping Ho is a generous and gifted healer. I was in a significant amount of pain when I began her interactive session after lunch. I was stunned an hour later to not only have forgotten about my pain, but also to have bonded deeply with the women in the room-all who were laughing. She was one of the most miraculous kinds of medicine I’ve ever experienced and there were no side effects. Bravo!”

For many chronic pain patients, the ability to convene and work together is rare. Often, they are alone and isolated.

“The arts can be used to help folks who feel isolated,” Ping said.

She pointed out that writing is a powerful tool that you can do yourself. Active engagement in music “takes up a lot of your brain”.  She also said there are a number of online forums where you can participate in arts endeavors.

The UCLA program is very interesting and there are programs and opportunities that can benefit both the individual and the community. Take a look at what they offer here.

Have you used an artistic effort like writing, prose or poetry, singing, acting to combat chronic pain?

If so, let us know about it.

If you haven’t, based on the experiences at the Women in Pain Conference, you might want to try it.

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Authored by: Ed Coghlan

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Listening to music helps me unwind. If I need to feel confident before work, I listen to upbeat music to help out my mood.

I recently bought a coloring book. I haven’t tried it, but I would like to. Always too much to get done and not enough time or energy. Getting sleep or resting takes priority over coloring (or housework, for that matter).

My escape is watching birds. I can do that out the back window or as I’m out and about. I wish I could plan special outings but I don’t have it in me. I live near the National Aviary so I have a membership and I love going there but I find I haven’t had the energy lately. This makes me sad, but maybe someday soon I will have the energy and be able to plan a trip there.


I love to dance always have .so I have respect for it. But when my Drs ask I always say I just want to go out dancing. I can tell you I might dance but I can promise you that I pay for the dance the next day.

Jean Price

I heartily agree that art and other types of distraction therapies can help those of us with long term, daily persistent pain. Most of us have creative projects we welcome to distract us….mine have been writing, baking, my plants and flowers, fishing, and some minor craft projects. However, I can no longer do any of these except the writing…and what writing I do lately isn’t helpful in the same way because it’s usually here…or on some other front….fighting for more appropriate pain care and the proven effective medications and treatments that are being withdrawn from the portfolio of our doctor’s care options!! So what then?? Not feeling very artsy when pain levels are constantly above a functional level! It would be wise for those who instigate and promote these therapies to come up with a “level of use” number, like a pain score, that would correlate with actually allowing people to participate!! I’m guessing it would be a whole lot lower score than most of us are in, probably at any time during the day! So, once again…some pain medication is needed so we can take advantage of other pain care modalities to help lessen the pain, increase coping, and give more quality to life! It’s really not rocket science, so why is this so hard for those in “control” to understand? Perhaps, that’s not “their” goal, in the first place…perhaps they are focused solely on eliminating opioids altogether, without a concern for those they are impacting so negatively. But we already know this, don’t we??!

This is nothing new at least for me. After my first 2 operations and no relief I was sent to a in-patient pain treatment class that lasted for a month. At a large rehab hospital for lots of different injuries like; stroke, heart attack, spine injuries and anything that would require the patient to learn how to live with their new disability. It was at this facility that I learned about bio-feedback, guided imagery, self relaxation or distraction relaxation. Anything that might take our mind off of the pain we were in. Physical therapy also played a large role in the process as most of the patients had been spending most of their time off their feet and afraid to do any real PT so as a result their bodies got weak, people put on weight and were out of shape. After the first week and lots of PT the staff got us started on the relaxation modalities. We actually did the same thing with the drawing a picture of our body in pain and where the pain was. Once our picture was done we were taken through a series of pictures that would encourage a person to get our mind off of our pain and concentrate more on the picture and in some cases we were told to imagine our own picture that we felt would have a calming affect. We also spent time in a group, we played games that got us to laugh while getting to know the other folks in the group. I can attest that the process was much more affective for those that really wanted it to work. We spent 2 hours each day working on this kind of therapy and as time went on there were more and more people that seemed to change during those 2 hours. It was easy to see that some people became more relaxed and more at ease with others in the class. Some even said they hadn’t had that much fun in a long time and their pain seemed to have much less control over them. What I learned was, if you can find a way to get your mind off the pain and more focused on a waterfall for example then during that time period the pain is no longer your first thought. This process is just one of many different modalities that teach pain patients the power of positive thought through positive vision. It was a temporary short term pain reliever for those that believed it could or might work. Now as far as a cure - no it is not but it can help give your body and mind a short break from that constant pain that eats away at our body even if it is for only a short period of time. With practice I learned that I can use the process just about anywhere by using my imagination. Its a tool that can help lower that pain number and all you need… Read more »