The Art of Pain Therapy

Art Therapy Can be an Effective Way to Help Manage Pain

If you deal with pain from an injury, surgery, or just daily life, you may want to make some art.
Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that taps into parts of the brain involved in the creative process. And this can help modify your response to emotional and physical concerns.
While art therapy can be used for almost any type of pain, it has a growing role in chronic pain management.
“Art therapy does not replace the need for pain medication, but it can be used as an effective complement and reduce perceptions of pain experiences,” says Kelsey A. Skerpan, an art therapist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “It can help people better manage the symptoms of stress and anxiety that accompany pain, which assists with the recovery process and improves quality of life.”


Art therapy helps lower the perception of pain by moving your mental focus away from the painful stimulus. It is not simply a distraction, but rather a way to teach you how to relax and alter your mood, so the pain doesn’t control your emotional state.
A study in the February 2018 issue of The Arts in Psychotherapy looked at almost 200 people hospitalized for a medical issue or surgery. The researchers found that participating in art therapy for an average of 50 minutes significantly improved their moods and lowered levels of pain and anxiety.
“When people are in pain, they often lose their sense of control since their pain dictates what they can and cannot do,” says Skerpan. “Engaging in art therapy helps them reclaim ownership in their lives in terms of what art they choose and the steps they take to create something unique.”
Art therapy is not to be confused with regular art classes. While they share a common goal of creating art, art therapy involves working with a registered or board-certified art therapist who guides you through the creative process while exploring how it relates to your pain.
For instance, you may focus on making a piece of art that represents what your pain looks like on that particular day and then discuss how the pain is connected to the different lines, shapes, and colors you create. “Processing art like this can help people further explore their condition, which may encourage them to talk more about how making art affects them, their mood, and their pain,” says Skerpan.

Find an art therapist
A registered art therapist (ATR) or a board-certified art therapist (ATR-BC) has earned a master’s degree and undergone supervised training in the field. 


You don’t have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. The type of art you do doesn’t matter either. In fact, Skerpan encourages people to consider all kinds of artistic expression, including printmaking, mixed media, woodworking, and ceramics.
“You could revisit something you enjoyed in the past, or an art form you are interested in learning more about,” she says.
Typical sessions are weekly and last 30 to 60 minutes. The length and number can change as needed. While sessions are often individual at first, they may expand into a group support setting, which offers a chance for people to share their experiences.
You should approach art therapy like any other type of therapy, says Skerpan. “Give it a few sessions, but don’t worry if you don’t click with the therapist. Simply try someone else. Eventually you can find someone who meets your needs.”

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