NEWS | August 8, 2018

The Art of Pain Relief: How museums may help address chronic pain

UC Davis Health expert explores a creative approach to managing pain


Art provides many benefits, from uplifting the human spirit to expanding and changing how individuals view the world around themselves.

UC Davis Pain medicine expert Ian Koebner developed the “Art Rx” tour in collaboration with Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum to explore whether an art museum tour and discussion could help address chronic pain.

Now, a research team led by UC Davis Health pain management experts suggests that art and art museum tours may offer relief from chronic pain.

In a study titled “The Art of Analgesia” that appears in the journal Pain Medicine, Ian Koebner and colleagues evaluated the feasibility of providing docent-led art museum tours to decrease the discomfort and social disconnection associated with chronic pain.

Fifty-seven percent of participants in the study, which was done in collaboration with the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, reported pain relief during their tours, which was termed “Art Rx.” Study participants also reported an average reduction in pain of nearly 50 percent as well as positive effects on feelings of social disconnection and pain unpleasantness.

“An estimated 100 million American adults suffer from chronic pain,” said Koebner, who directs the integrative pain management program in the UC Davis Division of Pain Medicine. “It is the most common problem physicians are asked to treat. Relief can be very elusive, frustrating patients and clinicians alike. We wanted to explore an alternative approach to treating it.”

Studies have demonstrated an association between physical pain and social disconnection, but this research has not clarified how to translate these findings into clinical care for patients. The UC Davis researchers wanted to investigate an intervention that targeted the social context in which pain is experienced and explore the analgesic effect of social connections. An art museum tour, involving a group of individuals and docent-led discussions, appeared to be a good fit.

Koebner and colleagues conducted a mixed-methods feasibility study involving 54 participants, with a mean age of 59 and two-thirds being female.

In their interviews a number of participants reflected on the isolating nature of chronic pain, with some reporting their sense of isolation – and thus pain – being compounded by negative experiences with health care institutions.

“When we looked at the qualitative data developed through our interview process with participants, we found an interesting juxtaposition between an individual’s experience with chronic pain during their interactions with a health care system and their experiences with chronic pain while participating in our museum-based program,” Koebner said. “Individuals regularly reported that they felt very isolated with their pain, which in some cases was exaggerated by negative encounters with health care organizations that were difficult to navigate, impersonal and felt to lack empathy. Conversely, Art Rx provided participants with a sense of community and was experienced as inclusive, engaging and validating in terms of listening to an individual’s perspectives on art.”

The Art Rx tours focused on the museum experience rather than specific objects of art. Tours concentrated on just 3-5 paintings or other art objects during the one-hour sessions. Whenever possible, a gallery was blocked off to the public so study participants could also have privacy and be encouraged by a comfortable discussion.

The research team cautioned that the study’s outcome data should be interpreted with restraint. The study was not designed to establish causality, rather the researchers examined the feasibility of a unique partnership between an academic pain center and an art museum to assess how the collaboration might help address the social dimensions of pain.

“We found a wonderful, willing and capable partner in the Crocker Art Museum, which is committed to making their museum a community resource for everyone in the region and beyond,” Koebner said. “As we learn more about the social determinants of health, organizations that haven’t traditionally been involved in the health enterprise may have real contributions to make. Our study shows the potential for museums like the Crocker, and other civic institutions, to be public health partners and help all of us find new ways to address chronic pain and the isolating effects of chronic illness.”

With the innovative, art museum/academic health system collaboration in mind, the UC Davis Health team recently completed a related study that offers a detailed programmatic description to help museum curators and pain specialists initiate, structure and implement similar Art Rx programs to address chronic pain in other communities. This study will be published in the forthcoming issue of Curator: The Museum Journal.

In addition to Koebner, other study authors from UC Davis Health were Scott M. Fishman, Deborah Ward and Jill G. Joseph. Co-authors also included Debora Paterniti, Sonoma State University; Doris Sommer, Harvard University; and Claudia M. Witt, University Hospital Zurich and University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.

The Art of Analgesia activity was supported in part by the California Arts Council. Any findings, opinions, or conclusions found in the resulting study are not necessarily those of the California Arts Council. The California Arts Council had no role in the design, conduct or analysis of the study.