When Charlotta Norgaard was diagnosed 12 years ago with Lupus, an autoimmune disease, she would lie in bed, throw the sheet over her face and cry. Getting dressed was a battle. Sleep was nearly impossible.
“If I turned in my sleep I would wake up in screaming pain just from having moved,” she said.
Norgaard, 42, CEO of Patient Protocol, a mobile health-monitoring tool, tried a number of remedies, obsessively altering her diet, environment and medication in search of something—anything—to alleviate her chronic pain.
Help finally arrived from an unexpected source—art.
Whether it’s painting, singing or writing, a growing number of people suffering from chronic pain are using the creative arts as a form of therapy. An estimated 100 million adults suffer from chronic pain in the United States, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Pain. Medical authorities say different forms of creative expression can offer fulfillment and relief to many who might feel enslaved by their pain.
When Norgaard is in a bad state of chronic pain, she puts on some classical or heavy metal music and cranks up the volume. She dips a brush into her acrylics and begins to throw paint on canvas.
“It’s like I zone out from real life. Pain doesn’t exist there—all you hear is music, all you see is painting,” she said. “I don’t have to deal with it in my mind and my heart, and I don’t feel the pain at that time.”
When she puts down her brush an hour or so later and steps back from her abstract-style creation—an externalization of her suffering—it feels as if she’s coming off a pleasant high, she said. As the reality of the pain slowly returns to her, the intensity seems diminished.
There is no pill that fixes chronic pain, said Dr. Paul Zeltzer, co-founder of Whole Child LA, a private practice in Los Angeles for treating afflicted children and young adults; opioids are not very effective. Although they might dull the senses, they don’t attack the cause of the pain, so it’s important for those suffering from chronic pain to find additional modalities of pain management that work for them, whether it is exercise, hypnotherapy or art therapy, he said.
Someone with chronic pain who engages in some form of “creative expression,” such as painting, steers impulses away from the “bother center” of the brain, explained Zeltzer. While she or he might experience pain in the background, it becomes easier to concentrate on new perceptions and not be dominated by those that are less pleasurable. Diverting attention away from pain sensations allows people to “rewire” or “reboot” areas of the brain involved in pain perception, he said. “Distraction is a very powerful mechanism.”
Daniel Lyman, a psychotherapist specializing in chronic pain, uses a related cognitive behavioral technique at the Pain Psychology Center in Beverly Hills. Preoccupation with pain exacerbates pain-sensations by creating internal anxiety, he said, causing more instances of pain “flare-ups.” His practice focuses not only on managing people’s pain, but eliminating the symptoms by “rewiring” the pain perception centers of the brain.
“The goal of a lot of our work is growing new neural pathways so that your brain isn’t preoccupied with pain, and art is a great way to do that,” said Lyman.
This pain technique is effective not only for visual arts, but for auditory ones as well.
Alison Murphy, 53, an acupuncturist and sound healing facilitator, uses her voice to manage her discomfort.
Murphy was in a movie theatre two years ago when she took a bite of popcorn and noticed her lips and tongue were numb. In the following weeks she started experiencing migraines and sharp pains throughout her body.
She was diagnosed with late-stage neurological Lyme disease, which, like Lupus, is associated with not only physical chronic pain symptoms, but also cognitive problems, such as memory loss and fatigue.
Murphy recently started a Lyme support group on Meet-up to build community and share information about remedial techniques, including this “toning” therapy.
“By the third or fourth session people are just singing and opening their voices and letting it out,” she said. “It can be so, so beautiful to sit in a group and received other’s vibrations and give the healing vibrations.”
Creative expression is not only a way to be distracted from pain; it’s also a tool for taking better control of it.
Psychotherapist Ruschelle Khanna, author of 30 Days of Prayer: Healing Autoimmunity for Women, uses her personal experiences with chronic pain to facilitate a women’s therapy group that uses writing as a tool to manage their pain.
In March 2014, after her usual CrossFit workout, Khanna felt a strange tightness in her neck. Within two months she was experiencing seizure-like spasms in her back and says she felt as though she were being electrocuted and her head was on fire. Five months later she was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Writing allowed Khanna to become more mindful of what was happening in her body and work through her pain, utilizing it as a motivational force, she said.
Changes in diet, exercise and medication can only do so much. Ultimately many chronic pain sufferers discover through trial and error that the best way to alleviate their misery is to let it out. For Murphy, her writing is “like art, painting, moving, singing or any other type of creative arts —you’re expressing your pain,” she said. “The person who can express their pain is not the person who is repressing it.”
All paintings by Charlotta Norgaard