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Using EMDR therapy to treat chronic pain

An older man grabs his shoulder in pain

Have you been experiencing chronic pain and unable to find relief? Have you tried different medical interventions with only some or no success? If so, EMDR may be able to help alleviate some or all of your chronic pain.

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of psychotherapy. Over the past 30 years, EMDR has shown to be highly effective in treating a wide variety of mental health challenges and conditions.

In the earlier years of EMDR, this type of therapy was applied primarily to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is often associated with physical pain. Given its high success rate with decreasing physical pain, psychotherapists began offering EMDR treatment to people with chronic pain as well.

Where does chronic pain come from?

Pain can occur for many reasons, but its main purpose is to signal that there’s something physically wrong with the body. When pain persists despite medical intervention, it may be time to look for other forms of treatment.

Chronic pain can persist due to fatigue, stress, traumatic experiences, and biochemical changes. When someone has experienced a physical injury, the ongoing memory of enduring that injury—along with emotional suffering from physical pain—can stay with that person. Emotional injuries, either recent or decades old, can accompany memories of trauma, abuse, and emotional neglect, and they be expressed by the body as physical pain. 

How can EMDR help with chronic pain?

Pain can get locked into the nervous system with no apparent escape, but EMDR helps facilitate its release, resulting in reduction or elimination of pain. EMDR stimulates the nervous system in a way that promotes healing, neutralizes painful memories and sensations, and perceives anticipated painful situations from a more positive perspective.

One of my clients, Robin, first started coming to see me because of a horseback riding accident from several years earlier. She still had significant lower leg and knee pain that persisted from the accident. Robin had been through various medical interventions and physical therapy, but her doctors and physical therapist couldn’t explain her ongoing pain. 

We discovered that the horseback riding accident had been traumatic for Robin. She had gone trail riding in questionable weather, which caused her horse to fall while they were descending a hill. The horse and Robin both sustained moderate injuries, and it took hours for help to reach them. Robin felt guilty and selfish for taking out her horse in bad weather, and she felt responsible for the physical injuries and pain her horse suffered due to her bad judgment.

In time, both Robin and her horse made a full physical recovery. However, Robin continued to struggle with a lot of emotional anguish, distress, and traumatic memories of waiting for help while hearing her horse whimper in pain. The persistent knee and lower leg pain she was still experiencing years after the accident were likely related to that trauma.

With EMDR therapy, Robin was able to process her pain-related sensations, the guilt over her bad judgment, and the traumatic memories of waiting for help. After three months of weekly 90-minute EMDR sessions, she reported no more physical pain in her lower legs and knees, and she was able to fully enjoy riding again. 

Is EMDR right for treating your chronic pain?

If you’re experiencing chronic pain and wondering if EMDR can help, your first step should be to check in with your doctor or the medical team that helps you manage your pain. You should be able to answer the following questions:

  • Could other physical or biological factors be causing your physical pain? If so, what are your medical team’s recommendations for treatment, and what are the expected treatment outcomes?
  • How long has the pain lasted? If it’s been a month or two, you may want to wait to see if the pain resolves with your current treatments. By most standards, chronic pain is defined as lasting three months or longer.
  • Could any of your current lifestyle factors be inhibiting your pain from healing?  Examples include eating an inflammatory diet, side effects from medication, working too many hours, not getting enough sleep, and feeling constant stress.
  • Did your physical pain originate from a traumatic experience or is it tied to a traumatic memory? If the answer to either question is yes, I highly recommend consulting with an EMDR therapist.

If you decide to consider EMDR as an option to address your chronic pain, try asking your potential EMDR therapist the following questions:

  • What is your experience working with chronic pain? After your clients complete EMDR therapy, what are their outcomes?
  • Besides EMDR, do you provide other treatments or therapies that help with chronic pain?
  • Do you have specialized EMDR training in chronic pain?
  • If you have a specific pain disorder, other medical condition, or other special considerations that you feel might impact the therapy, bring that up with the therapist to get their feedback. For instance, if you’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, make sure you ask the therapist if they have experience treating that condition.

Ready to look for an EMDR therapist to help with your chronic pain? Browse our directory to find one who’s right for you.

About the author

Suzi Sena, EdS, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor with over 20 years of experience in human resources, education, integrative mental health, career counseling, and private practice settings. She earned her master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University, her master’s in counselor education from Kean University, and her EdS degree in family and marriage therapy from The College of New Jersey. She holds numerous certifications and credentials in integrative mental health, career counseling, and human resources. She is currently in private practice, where she provides integrative mental health services to individuals and couples and consulting services to employers.

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