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Eye Movements Alone Relieve Pain

Raymond Shred, PhD
Registered Psychologist

Buffalo Springfield (I guess that dates me; they are a late sixties rock group) said it best in one of their songs, "Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear . . . ."

EMDR has been a central part of my practice as a psychologist since the day after my Level 1 training. I feel quite confident in my ability to help clients resolve ("metabolize") traumatic memories and their cognitive sequelae. I’ve felt fairly confident about using Mark Grant’s Chronic Pain Protocol with modest success for clients with chronic pain. Until recently, I had never considered using only Eye Movements (EM’s) directly for pain.

It all started with a misunderstanding. Susan Rogers wrote to the EMDR Institute listserv with a case example and I read it but didn’t pay particular attention. Then, Dr. Rogers sent a follow-up message with a throw-away comment about a “one set” treatment for pain. Intrigued, I wrote to her directly for clarification and she described using EM's to reduce pain. Not a protocol, just EM's. I decided to check it out. This was at the beginning of March, 2003.

To the EMDR Institute listserv, I wrote, "I saw a client today (3rd session) who was recently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. She had been in constant pain for at least 4 weeks. She has been in varying degrees of pain for about a year for other reasons.

"The constant pain was centred in her neck just below the skull and radiated into her head -- only on the right side. She has been in enough pain on several days that she has only been able to sit in a darkened room and cry. She described that as an 8 or 9 on a 0 to 10 scale of pain intensity (SUDS scale).

That is the highest it had been but she could imagine it going higher. In today's session, she reported that the pain intensity was at 6.

"After obtaining a rating, I asked her to focus on the pain and follow my fingers. After the first set, she reported a sensation like her face melted -- that is, the tension just dropped away. With each set of EM's after that the pain level dropped. As the pain level decreased to 2 out of 10, she was able to exert a greater range of motion than she had for weeks. I became emboldened. I hadn't had any particular expectations when I started. I felt maybe the pain intensity will go down a little, maybe it won’t. But, there was no harm in trying. Anyway, once it went down to a 2, I figured I better not stop until it went to 0.

"To make a short story even shorter, it did go to 0. I was left with a client sitting there amazed saying, "Wow, that's amazing," over and over. For the first time in 4 weeks she was totally pain free."

At the time of writing, it is now over two months since that session and the pain has not returned. The client reported that her husband asked her to thank me for giving him his wife back. She has been able to deal with other old stresses as well as present stresses more effectively and with less impact on her life. That is, she is more able to let things go now.

Since many of you may also subscribe to the EMDR Institute Listserv, the case above may not be news to you.

Recently, I have begun to use EM,s to help people with "bad" headaches relieve the pain. Two of the people I have used this with have been post-MVA clients. They have had headaches on a regular if not a daily basis for a considerable period.

Asking clients to rate the pain intensity, and then to “just notice that sensation and follow my fingers” has brought complete relief. In one case, the client was photosensitive as well. This had been very true after his MVA but continued and it was now 8 months later. When we started our session on a sunny morning (aren’t they all in Nanaimo), I needed to close the blinds in my office in order for him to be comfortable. By the end of our session, he was pain free and able to look outside without his sunglasses. This was a short session because of his schedule and we only had about 30 minutes in total.

There have been residual somatic sensations (i.e., pain) following the processing of some issues for other clients. Again, I have just asked them to focus on the feeling and follow my fingers. A few sets of EM’s have been sufficient to relieve the residual pain.

At the present time, I can only speculate about what is happening. The clients mentioned above have all been seen only a few times. So, it is unlikely that they would be expecting some miracle cure based on past success with EMDR. Prior to the session focused on their pain, they had between 0 and 2 sessions where I used the EMDR standard protocol.

As EMDR is purported to be an information processing therapy, it is most likely that the EM’s helped the brain to reprocess what is essentially dysfunctional and unneeded information. Headache in most cases, and especially chronic headache, is not a “good pain.” It may be that the Dual Attention Stimulation (i.e., the Eye Movements) is effectively metabolizing the unnecessary and ecologically invalid headache pain.

I'm still not sure what the active mechanism is regarding pain relief but, “Wow.” Dr. Rogers wrote in her email, "If you are impressed with what [EMDR] does for PTSD, wait till you see what it can do with pain."

I'm impressed.

Dr Raymond Shred
Registered Psychologist
Nanaimo, British Columbia
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