Guided imagery is a powerful tool in the fight against arthritis symptoms. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell: A person focuses on images – including symbols, pictures, scenes or even colors – that evoke feelings of relaxation or relief. The practice can help relieve physical pain and psychological symptoms such as stress, anxiety and depression, says Hilary McClafferty, MD, an expert on guided imagery at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“For example, if you have joint pain, you [would] use guided imagery to focus on joint pain, using the imagery to shrink, fade or soften the pain in your mind,” says Dr. McClafferty. “You directly focus on the pain, but in a positive way.”

Guided imagery may be useful to ease tension during arthritis drug infusions, for early intervention of symptom flares or to address emotional stressors. It should be used to complement, not replace conventional arthritis treatments like medications, Dr. McClafferty adds.

The practice may take as little as 10 to 20 minutes, and is done simply by focusing on mental images that elicit healing feelings – such as cooling hot joints, dulling pain, soothing soreness, softening stiff muscles, or relaxing stress and anxiety. Imagery differs from one person to another based on preferences, she says.

In the past decade, evidence supporting the efficacy of this practice has grown, especially for pain, anxiety and stress management. One recent study, published in March 2010 in Pain Management Nursing, followed 30 older adults with osteoarthritis (OA). After using guided imagery and relaxation techniques for four months, participants had less OA pain and greater mobility, and reduced their use of over-the-counter painkillers.

Convenience and low cost are two advantages of guided imagery, says Dr. McClafferty. People with arthritis can practice it when and where they like. CDs, videos or printed guides can help you learn how to practice guided imagery, and trained practitioners can provide personalized support. If using the imagination poses a risk – for those with a history of severe emotional, physical or sexual trauma, for example – consult a mental health professional before trying guided imagery, she stresses.

Here’s how to start,

  • Stop what you are doing
  • Find a quiet, private place
  • Close your eyes
  • Take several slow breaths to relax the body and focus the mind

Individuals may tailor the imagery to their needs and preferences – such as these examples.