5 Tips on Using Motor Imagery to Eliminate Pain

Motor Imagery tips

Pain with movement is common. Many people have back pain that doesn’t hurt when sitting quietly but flares up when walking or hitting a golf ball. Motor imagery is an activity that can be done while sitting quietly but activates the brain as if movement is taking place. Motor imagery improves blood flow, strengthens the connection between the brain and the muscles, and can be done completely pain-free.

What is your favorite participatory sport? Do you like to play tennis, golf, or swim? Sit quietly and imagine yourself swinging successfully at a tennis ball or hitting a golf ball and watching a hole-in-one go in, or racing down the pool lane and touching the end of the pool a full stroke ahead of the competition. Imagining these things changes blood flow in the brain and the electrical flow to the muscles that would need to work in order for those activities to be done in real life.

Motor imagery visualizations can be especially helpful for people after a brain injury, a stroke, cerebral palsy, or a movement disorder like Parkinson’s disease or Huntington’s ataxia.

Here are five tips from the medical literature on using motor imagery.

1Use Both Motor Imagery and Physical Activity

Several types of exercise or healing activities are usually better than just one type of activity. Also motor imagery seems to be helpful in both big movements like walking in a lush green park and fine motor skills like drawing a picture of a loved one’s face.

Motor imagery has been argued to affect the acquisition of motor skills. Behavioral results from the test phase showed that response times and accuracy improved after physical and mental practice relative to unfamiliar sequences, although the effect of motor learning by motor imagery was smaller than the effect of physical practice. These findings confirm that motor imagery also resembles motor execution in the case of a fine hand motor skill.

Experimental Brain Research (2017)

2Age Appropriate Activities

This next study has to be consider with a grain of salt because what are age appropriate activities? Older mountain climbers, golfers, marathoners have proven that many activities can be done at any age. Are there things you consider yourself too old or too young to be doing?

Motor imagery, the mental practice of movements, has been suggested as a promising complement to other therapeutic approaches facilitating motor rehabilitation. Of particular potential is the combination of Motor Imagery with neurofeedback. Overall, the findings suggest a complex relationship between age and movement-related activity in electrophysiological and hemodynamic measures. Our results emphasize that the age of the actual end-user should be taken into account when designing neurorehabilitation protocols.

Neurobiology of Aging (2017)

3Motor Imagery Improves Brain Plasticity

Motor imagery improves brain plasticity or the ability to learn and do new things as well as recover and compensate for a traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury.

In the last decade, many studies confirmed the benefits of mental practice with motor imagery. We suggest a model of neural adaptation following mental practice, in which synapse conductivity and inhibitory mechanisms at the spinal level may also play an important role.


4Focus on the Sensation and the Visualization

When doing motor imagery you can focus on the sensations of touch that you would feel when tapping your fingers on a table or releasing a basketball on a perfect layup. There are certain sensations in your hands and body that you can focus on or you can focus on seeing yourself do the activity as if you are watching a movie of yourself drive a car and turn the steering wheel or dribble a basketball. Both kinds of motor imagery are beneficial.

Motor imagery can be divided into kinesthetic and visual aspects. Corticospinal excitability increased during both kinesthetic and visual motor imagery, while excitability in Vision 1 brain area was increased only during visual motor imagery. These results imply that modulation of cortical excitability during kinesthetic and visual motor imagery is task dependent.

Neuroscience Letters (2017)

5Do, Observe, and Visualize

Is it better to do the activity, watch someone else do the activity, or close your eyes and visualize yourself doing the activity? A lot of research has looked at this question and the answer seems to be that each aspect doing, watching, and visualizing seem to improve the doing but in slightly different ways. One article discussed,

Recent evidence supporting the use of action observation therapy [watching] and motor imagery practice [visualizing] for rehabilitation of Parkinson’s disease and discusses how the research on the combined use of action observation and motor imagery for motor improvements in healthy subjects may encourage the combined use of action observation therapy and motor imagery practice for therapeutic aims in Parkinson’s disease.

Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (2017)

What do you “see” when you close your eyes? Does it improve your brain health and decrease your pain?

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