Sophrology as a Tool for Chronic Pain
As a physical therapist, when I treat teens and young adults with chronic pain, I make sure the mind is supporting the body and vice versa.
Sophrology – a mindfulness technique that comes from Spain -- is a great tool that I have been using increasingly to complement more traditional physical therapy techniques. It aims to help the mind and body stay in harmony during simple mindfulness visualization and relaxation exercises, but also while in movement.
Athletes such as skiers or Formula One drivers are frequent users of sophrology techniques. During a race, these athletes need their bodies to respond very rapidly, and having a balanced mind/body connection makes a significant difference during a stressful competitive situation.
Sophrology has also been used in Europe during pregnancy to prepare for a painless labor.
As a physical therapist, I want to ensure that my patients get enough comfortable movements in their daily activities. It can be challenging to tell a patient with chronic pain to move if anything the patient does is painful. I must think “outside the box” to help my patients overcome their stress and be able to perform painless and efficient movements.
The first step in sophrology is to guide the patient in assessing his own body in the present moment and allow him to reconnect to efficient, and relaxing, diaphragmatic breathing. (The diaphragm is the center key of the body.)
Then we go further by suggesting comfortable and positive visualization -- without imposing too many details -- and letting the patient’s mind guide the body’s response comfortably. It’s important to note that the patient is always conscious and in control, and can stop following the therapist’s guidance at any time.
Depending on the targeted goal, the therapist can suggest specific images to the patient. For example, we can help the patient eliminate body tension using images of an outside element, like water. To help restore energy, we can use images of string lights along the body.
Guiding the image of the patient’s body as a tree with branches (arms), that can move gracefully and comfortably in the wind will help patients to accept diverse body movements in a relaxing way.
It’s also possible to guide the visualization toward a completely different element to help the patient disconnect from the body perspective and/or pain, such as visualization of an external object.
The goal is to progressively rebalance the mind and body in motion using varied types of visualizations while the body changes positions: moving to a sitting or standing position, moving body extremities, weight-bearing transfers, or just focusing on breathing.
We call this sophrology in motion “dynamic sophrology.”
The interesting fact is that during a sophrology session, patients can sometimes achieve movements that are normally painful or even impossible outside of this relaxed state.
For example, with a patient who can’t bear any weight when standing because the mere thought of putting pressure on her feet brings unbearable pain, I will usually start in a non-weight bearing posture, using diverse visualization techniques.
Then several sessions later, I will try to get the patient to move to a more upright position to perform the visualization. I will have her sit first, then progress toward the goal of being able to relax and achieve more direct movements in standing.
Sophrology is a great tool for a physical therapist, and helps to achieve goals which are difficult to achieve with traditional PT techniques.