Can Reading Help Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, Editor

A good book is not only hard to put down -- it may also help relieve symptoms of chronic pain by triggering positive memories, according to a small British study.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool brought together a group of ten people with severe chronic pain once a week to read literature together aloud. The reading material included short stories, novels and poetry, and covered a wide variety of genres and topics.

While passages were read aloud in the “Shared Reading” exercise, regular pauses were taken to encourage participants to reflect on what is being read, on the thoughts or memories it stirred, and how the reading matter related to their lives.

Researchers compared the Shared Reading group to another group practicing a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

While participants in the CBT group were encouraged to manage their emotions by focusing on the pain experience, Shared Reading encouraged pain sufferers to recall positive memories from their past before the onset of chronic pain.

"Our study indicated that shared reading could potentially be an alternative to CBT in bringing into conscious awareness areas of emotional pain otherwise passively suffered by chronic pain patients,” said Josie Billington, a researcher at the University’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society.

"The encouragement of greater confrontation and tolerance of emotional difficulty that Sharing Reading provides makes it valuable as a longer-term follow-up or adjunct to CBT's concentration on short-term management of emotion."

Researchers say Shared Reading has a therapeutic effect because it helps participants recall a variety of life experiences -- from work, childhood, family and relationships -- not just memories that involve chronic pain.

The study, published in the BMJ Journal for Medical Humanities, was funded by the British Academy.

While many pain sufferers are deeply skeptical of CBT, meditation and similar forms of “mindfulness” therapy, there is evidence that they work for some. A recent study found that CBT lessened pain and improved function better than standard treatments for low back pain.

Another study at Wake Forest University found that mindfulness meditation appears to activate parts of the brain associated with pain control.