What do we know about using EMDR to help with chronic pain? According to PubMed, there are only 17 articles from 2000 to present that come up when “EMDR and chronic pain” are entered as search criteria, three of which are literature reviews and there are others that are case studies, not randomized, controlled studies. What we know of the randomized, controlled studies are:
1) We need more randomized, controlled studies in larger quantities (of both studies themselves and clients in the studies),
2) They are by and large successful in bringing down the subjective measures of physical pain, and often times related feelings of depression and anxiety, and
3) Pain brings with it a whole host of other factors that would benefit from being researched, like did the original pain-inducing trauma (if there was one) cause any other psychiatric symptoms, like psychosis?
Given all of the above, I feel that working with clients with chronic pain issues and using EMDR treatment can be very beneficial. I find myself using Dr. Mark Grant’s pain protocol, which states that you can either use EMDR “as usual” if there was a precipitating trauma that caused the pain. For example, if a car accident caused the chronic back pain, focusing on the car accident as the traumatic event as you would any other emotionally traumatic memory for a non-chronic pain client can be helpful.
A second option would be using EMDR to focus on the pain itself, especially if there was no precipitating event, i.e. a chronic, genetic illness or accumulated physical stress causing an injury but not one overt memory. In this, asking the client to focus on the pain as the “memory”, so to speak, then asking basic assessment questions around this, i.e. what image is the pain? What color is it? How big is it? When they think of the pain, what emotions does it bring up for them? etc. Continuing to use the pain as the focal point in the assessment questions gets the client to focus on a specific part of the pain, which they will then pair with the BLS. The simple act of focusing on something else instead of the pain during the BLS, Dr. Grant contends in his protocol, can help clients form a “distancing” from the physical pain, thus a reduction in the SUDS level.
Personally, I have found the latter option to be the most effective anecdotally with my clients with chronic pain. Far more often I have clients that have had pain for years versus someone coming in with pain from a new, recent and discrete memory. So, for my purposes, the second option works well and has brought down SUDS significantly.
I find my work with clients with chronic pain to be very gratifying, as I can offer a real sense of relief physically, and often times emotionally, as well. If you find you would like EMDR consultation with your work around clients with chronic pain, please contact me. I look forward to discussing cases with you and providing guidance in a newer field of using EMDR.