• Kevin Kenealy

How EMDR is Effective at Helping People Dealing with Chronic Pain


How EMDR is effective at helping people dealing with chronic pain


More often than not, when we feel pain, our emotions are put aside or brushed under the carpet. However, pain is our body’s alarm system and shouldn’t be ignored. When it goes off, it means that there is something wrong, and we should address it. Pain can manifest itself in two forms: acute and chronic. What is the difference between them? Let’s find out.

Acute pain vs chronic pain

Acute pain starts in response to a stimulus such as surgery, burns, cuts, fracture, etc., and stops when you remove or fix the painful stimulus.


Chronic pain doesn’t go away and lasts longer than six months. It persists, even after you uproot the underlying injury or illness. In some cases, there is no underlying cause at all. Some people suffer from chronic pain for years. What happens is that your nervous system fails to cut off the pain signals, keeping them active.

Relationship between trauma and chronic pain

The causes of chronic pain are not limited to physical stresses such as headache, arthritis, cancer, nerve pain, back pain, etc. They extend to psychological problems as well.


Emotionally distressing conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can translate into the following physical symptoms of chronic pain:


● Muscle pain

● Joint pain

● Low stamina and flexibility

● Immobility

● Fatigue

● Lack of energy

● Changes in appetite

● Sleep problems

Treatment of chronic pain — the EMDR therapy

Treatment of chronic pain involves medications, therapies and lifestyle changes. Here, we narrow our focus to the EMDR therapy.

What is EMDR therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a type of psychotherapy that was initially introduced to treat trauma (Shapiro, 1989, 1995). But over time, scientists learned that it could also be used to treat chronic pain with or without the presence of psychological trauma.


The EMDR therapy couples the use of psychotherapeutic methods with bilateral sensory stimulation and the dual focus of attention principle. Let’s look into them.

Psychotherapeutic methods

Some commonly employed psychotherapeutic methods include:


● Imaginal exposure

Imaginal exposure is a variation of exposure therapy in which the person confronts traumatic memories without having to face them in reality. It is practised to reduce feelings of fear.


● Cognitive techniques

Cognitive techniques help the person identify negative thoughts and behaviour patterns. Such techniques also allow us to see how the painful memory affects our actions.


● Stress management techniques

Deep breathing and mindfulness help us cope with stress while recalling painful memories from the past. Here are six quick and easy steps you can follow for deep breathing:


1. Lie down on a flat surface, in a comfortable position.

2. Put one hand over your chest and the other between the diaphragm and the ribcage.

3. Inhale slowly, let your lungs expand, and feel your diaphragm lower itself.

4. Slowly exhale, let out as much air as you can. Your diaphragm will rise during exhalation.

5. Repeat the breathing exercise.

Bilateral sensory stimulation

Bilateral sensory stimulation revolves around our sense of sound, sight, and touch. Your therapist might ask you to follow the left and right motion of his finger with your eyes. He/She could also ask you to focus on tapping the knees, legs, or shoulder.


Bilateral stimulation removes the trauma block from our brain that prevents the left side of the brain from self-soothing the right side of the brain.

The dual focus of attention principle

The dual focus of attention principle aims to help us process emotionally taxing events or memories. It works when we recall our trauma and, at the same time, respond to the bilateral sensory stimulus (e.g., eye movements) to replace positive thoughts with negative ones.

What happens during the EMDR therapy session?

Before your first therapy session, the therapist will evaluate your current state and the severity of your chronic pain. There are three types of EMDR targets in patients suffering from chronic pain:


● Traumatic memory.

As the name suggests, this target is about a traumatic event such as a life-threatening accident, surgical operation, or amputation.


● Pain-related memory.

It is an emotionally disturbing memory of the pain the person felt in response to the traumatic event. It could also be a reminder of the consequences of the pain.


● Current pain.

Current pain does not revolve around a memory. It is the pain one experiences in the present.


After the therapist explains the procedure to you, your session will begin with you recalling the traumatic memory. Your negative thoughts and feelings about the memory will surface. The therapist will then subject you to a bilateral sensory stimulus, such as the eye movement and replace your negative thoughts with positive ones that make you feel good about yourself.


The session will end with stabilization techniques like safe-place imagery.

Five reasons why EMDR is an effective treatment option for chronic pain


1. EMDR helps you deal with trauma, which is one of the primary risk factors for chronic pain. (Sanders, 2000)


2. Chronic pain indicates the presence of “small-t” traumas because it is consistent with them. Small or little “t” traumas stem from distressing events such as financial loss, the death of a pet, racial or ethnic discrimination, bullying, harassment, emotional abuse, family stress, etc.


3. The focus of EMDR therapy is also consistent with our neurophysiological mechanisms of pain in the context of the emotion bearing parts of our brain; the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.

4. EMDR significantly reduces disturbing feelings and sensations in response to images or events that trigger pain.


5. Several case reports prove that EMDR helps with pain relief.

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