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Moving Beyond Pain: Dance Movement Therapy for Chronic Pain

A dance class where one girl in the forefront in a white shirt and black shirts is doing a jump to help showcase the benefits of dance movement therapy for chronic pain

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) has traditionally been defined as the therapeutic use of movement to foster the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual. As an embodied creative-arts therapy, movement is the medium, or pathway through which personal reflection and transformation can occur, with the support of the dance/movement therapist.

One may be surprised to hear that individuals living with chronic pain may benefit from a therapeutic modality which asks them to move and exert physical energy. However, DMT is inherently patient-centered, such that the goal is to find movement which is accessible, and enjoyable for the client.

Unlike a typical dance “class” which may exacerbate physical chronic pain, dance/movement therapy presents meaningful opportunities to find joy, and healing through movement.

As a dance/movement therapist myself, I'm an individual who lives with chronic pain. Intensive dance training throughout my childhood and adulthood has left me with various chronic injuries, which I cope with daily. I have found that movement, in the right context and way is an essential aspect of my own pain management toolkit. I believe that this gives me a unique ability to empathize with clients who may be experiencing chronic pain themselves.

"By exploring movement creatively in DMT, participants may be able to increase their body awareness, to find both embodied sensations which are easeful or feel pleasant, as well as identify pre-cursors to pain."

“Chronic pain” may include individuals living with arthritis, complex regional pain, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc issues, or other injury-related pain.

Below, some benefits of DMT for individuals living with chronic pain will be summarized. For specific research articles on this topic, see Shim (2015).

A girl stands in tall grass with the sunset behind her. She is rhythmically moving her arms to symbolize the benefits of dance movement therapy for chronic pain

Benefits of Dance Movement Therapy for Chronic Pain

1. Increased Body Awareness

Individuals living with chronic pain may already have a greater-than-average tendency to be aware of their bodies and embodied sensations. Primarily, individuals living with chronic pain may be burdened by ongoing pain symptoms. Commonly, trying to “get through” situations despite experiencing pain can be tiresome.

However, by exploring movement creatively in DMT, participants may be able to increase their body awareness, to find both embodied sensations which are easeful or feel pleasant, as well as identify pre-cursors to pain.

For example, an individual may identify that their pain symptoms increase when there are long periods of not moving (e.g., sitting at their desk). So, in DMT, clients can co-create short movement phrases that help them to ground themselves, and find movements which may help to alleviate stiffness.

Additionally, for participants who may feel a rigidity in their movement, DMT can present opportunities to explore flow. Even if one particular joint or body part (e.g., the lower back) is experienced as “painful”, participants may find it encouraging to find joy in moving other body parts.

2. Improved Mood

DMT also presents opportunities to improve mood, specifically to experience positive affect and vitality. Within the DMT group, by giving participants space to express and process their chronic pain, they may find support from other group members. This sense of belonging, as well as revitalizing music and movement experiences can improve mood.

DMT has been historically thought of as a modality which utilizes the body to increase one’s sense of vigor, or liveliness. DMT can provide opportunities to experience joy, hope, laughter, and freedom.

3. Meaning-Making and Acceptance

In DMT, participants have opportunities to express personal narratives and tensions through creative movement. Among a DMT group for individuals living with chronic pain, Shim (2015) found that DMT enabled participants to make meaning of their experiences of chronic pain. Movement narratives may be created where participants create a phrase based on their journey of chronic pain.

This may inspire new insights about oneself, and help individuals to come to an acceptance of their chronic pain experience. Additionally, being in a DMT group with other individuals who live with chronic pain could help to foster a sense of belonging.

An older woman in a movement class is wearing a black shirt and reaching one of her hands forward as the other goes backwords to help showcase how dance movement therapy helps with chronic pain

4. Improved Self-Efficacy

Lastly, engaging with movement in a positive way, rather than a painful or punitive way may enhance participants’ sense of their own agency and efficacy. Core beliefs such as “I can move freely” or “I can create something beautiful” can be bolstered in DMT, and act as a counterpoint to more distressing thoughts which someone living with chronic pain may have such as “my body is always working against me”.

Finding and experiencing one’s strength and capacity for movement is a central benefit of DMT for individuals living with chronic pain.

What can you expect at a Dance Movement Therapy session for someone who has chronic pain?

The structure and components of a DMT session for chronic pain will depend on the practitioner, and if it is an individual client or a group. Within a group setting, a DMT session may include a physiological warm-up, then exploring personal themes through a variety of movement activities, such as those described here: creating movement narratives, or exploring movement which feels easeful or promotes flow, etc. DMT is tailored to the client(s) so the particular movements which are explored will vary greatly depending on the group and context.

Written by Eden Champagne.

Additional Research Resources:

Shim (2015). Factors and mechanisms of dance/movement therapy for resilience-building in people living with chronic pain


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