Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) and Chronic Pain

Let’s take a look at how dance can be used in a therapeutic setting and how it can treat chronic pain.


What is dance movement therapy (DMT)?

Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) utilizes the mind body connection, using movement to express emotions. Dance and movement can be integrated into many types of therapies but DMT is a specific therapy focused around dance. DMT is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as, “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual, for the purpose of improving health and well-being.”

The origins of dance being used as therapy began in the 19th century, as people started to realise that they could express emotions through dance. During the 20th century the principles of dance and the health benefits of incorporating dance into medical practice were explored. In 1966 the American Dance Therapy Association was formed. Since then dance therapy has become well established, with training and certification standards applied.

The benefits of DMT include:

  • Expression of feelings
  • Increased self awareness
  • Increased confidence
  • Building social skills
  • Providing a fun way to exercise

Dance therapy can be beneficial for people of all ages and for a wide range of health conditions including mental illness, learning difficulties and physical disabilities. Let’s take a look at how these benefits can help your pain management efforts and treat chronic pain.

How can dance movement therapy (DMT) treat chronic pain?

  • Release of endorphins

During exercise hormones called endorphins are released into your bloodstream. Endorphins promote a greater sense of wellbeing, helping boost your mood and enabling you to feel more emotionally stable. This can be highly useful for those of us with chronic pain, as we often suffer from comorbid mental illness. Endorphins interact with the same receptors within our bodies as opioids, making them a natural pain reliever (but without the side effects of opioids)! This means that exercise can actually reduce our pain levels. This in depth study on the effects of dance on fibromyalgia patients, found that engaging regularly in dance significantly reduced pain levels.

  • Building physical fitness and improving general health

Taking part in DMT helps patients to gain the physical benefits which come from exercise, including improving general fitness, increasing your immune system, helping you manage your weight and increasing energy levels. Those of us with chronic pain can often become inactive due to high pain levels or avoidance of activity through fear (known as fear avoidance). This can often lead to deconditioning, meaning our body becomes unfit and muscles become weakened. 
DMT can help you to build fitness, strength and recondition your muscles. This means that every day activity and movement will become easier and less painful because your body will be prepared for them. It can also make exercise easier moving forward.

  • Increasing range of motion and flexibility

Often muscles which have been inactive will become stiff, making them hard to move (and painful). Through specific exercises during DMT, your range of motion can be increased. As your flexibility increases and your muscles become less tense, pain levels can be reduced and levels of functioning improved. This review on dance therapy states that, dance enhanced the locomotor ability (ie, movement from one place to another) of individuals with severe rheumatoid arthritis”.

  • Building confidence in moving your body

Fear avoidance can be tackled through DMT. Through guided therapy, you can learn to move your body in a safe, calming setting with reassurance from your therapist. This can help you to build confidence, learning that your body can perform those movements and that you don’t need to be afraid. In turn, you’re feeding back to your brain it doesn’t need to send pain messages in reaction to these movements. This detailed study found that, “DMT resulted in statistically significant improvements in resilience, kinesiophobia (fear of movement), body awareness, and pain intensity.”

  • Stress relief

We know that stress can cause and worsen pain. But how do we break the cycle? Creative therapies like DMT can help you to relieve stress by expressing bottled up emotions. This can feel as though a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. During exercise, levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are reduced, and levels of adrenaline (the hormone which gets you ready for the ‘fight or flight’ response) are regulated. The change in these hormone levels helps to reduce stress and promote relaxation in its place. 

Often mindfulness will be incorporated into dance therapy, focusing on mindful movements. This means that you are in the moment, using slow flowing movements, often focusing on your breathing to keep you grounded and calm.  

  • Emotional regulation

Expressing and learning to recognise the different emotions you are feeling through DMT, can help you to pinpoint these emotions in your day to day life. Once you learn how to recognise your emotions and be more self aware, you can then learn to regulate them more effectively. Our emotions have a marked impact on our chronic pain symptoms. Improved emotional regulation can vastly improve quality of life.

  • Increasing self esteem and sense of self

Chronic pain patients often experience reduced confidence and a confused sense of self. This is often because they aren’t able to do the activities they used to do before they became chronically ill. They may not be able to work, and may need to ask loved ones for help to complete day to day activities. This can make you question who you are, and often can make you feel helpless or worthless. Through DMT you build up that confidence and start to feel more positive.

Dance can also help you to become aware of your body and how it moves. DMT has been proven to increase proprioception, which simply means that you are aware of where your body is in relation to the space around you. This awareness allows you to learn how to move your body safely and to improve your posture. 

It’s easy to feel angry at your body for letting you down when you live with chronic pain. Learning to take notice of all that your body does and how it can move beautifully during dance, can increase a sense of connection and appreciation of your body.

  • Improved cognitive processes

Regular exercise helps to keep your brain working at its most effective. During dance, you are learning how to move different parts of your body in specific ways, in time with the music. This stimulates your brain and increases coordination. Dance therapy can also help you to improve levels of concentration and increase attention span, which can be difficult for chronic pain patients. This review explains that during dance, blood flow is increased and neural connections are enhanced, increasing cognitive capacity.

  • Encouraging socialization

Many pain patients will withdraw socially through reduced functioning or because they feel that they are not able to keep up with friends. This social withdrawal can have a negative impact on mental health and also contribute to inactivity. When dance is done in a group setting, it can encourage patients to interact socially. It can help them to meet others who are going through similar health struggles, creating a sense of community and involvement.

  • Promoting better sleep patterns

It can be really tough to get a restful sleep when you live with chronic pain. When we engage in exercise we help our body to prepare for sleep. When we’re active during the day, we’re far more likely to sleep restfully. Engaging in DMT can help to provide that healthy tiredness required to form healthier sleeping patterns.

  • Distraction

One of the best coping tools is to distract yourself from pain and negative thoughts. This is certainly one of the ways that I cope in my day to day life. DMT can provide a focus and a sense of purpose. Integrating the dance exercises learnt during DMT into day to day life can be a great distraction, helping your mind to shift into a more positive mindset.

  • Fun and joy

When you live in chronic pain, it can so often feel as though all of the joy has been taken from your life. It’s really tough, and can be taxing emotionally. Finding joy is vital to coping. You need joy to feel motivated to keep going and to have a good quality of life. Everyone needs joy in their life. Dancing is fun! Being in a group learning to dance with cheerful, motivating music on is joyful! DMT can help to bring that respite from negative feelings, bringing light into patient’s lives.

What to expect when you attend dance movement therapy (DMT)

You may be referred to dance therapy through your doctor or specialist. It may be done in group classes or individually depending on your needs and the level of assistance you require. You may find that dance therapy is integrated into pain management clinics or other therapies. You can also access dance therapy privately. You could access dance therapy sessions online through videos to follow at home.

While this article focuses on DMT, you could also engage in dance classes, dance exercise classes at your local gym or leisure centre, aquatic dance workouts (like water aerobics) and more! You could even integrate dancing for fun at home and still see many of the benefits we have discussed! You don’t need to be an experienced or skilled dancer to take part in dance therapy, all ages and abilities are able to take part.

When you first attend DMT you will communicate with the therapist. They’ll talk to you about your dance experience and your health problems, and you’ll figure out a treatment plan. You will have a chance to ask any questions you might have or express any worries.

The type of dancing and movements you do during DMT will vary greatly depending on:

  • Your previous dancing experience
  • Your current level of functioning
  • How confident you feel
  • How much assistance you might need
  • Your preferences
  • The treatment goals you set with your therapist
  • The therapist’s preferences and style

Sessions will usually begin with a warm up to get you ready for exercise. You may start out following the therapist in doing individual movements. These may be with or without music. Once you have the hang of individual movements, you may then build up to learning a dance routine.

Alternatively, the sessions may be focused more on you freestyling rather than actually learning dance movements. For example, the therapist may ask you to express how a piece of music makes you feel through dance. Alternatively, they may ask you to express a specific emotion through movement.

If you’re in a group setting, you may be instructed to carry out specific exercises. For example, in pairs you might be asked to mirror your partner’s movements. This type of exercise is to encourage empathy and emotional connection.

While the exercises carried out during sessions can vary greatly, they all have a similar aim: to integrate body and mind to address health problems and improve quality of life. Therapists may give you ‘homework’ to do between sessions. Once your sessions have ended, you will be able to continue using the skills you have learnt in your day to day life. You can even carry on dancing in your own time!

References

  • Álvaro Murillo-García, Santos Villafaina  José C. Adsuar, et al, (2018), “Effects of Dance on Pain in Patients with Fibromyalgia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 
  • Bidonde, J., Boden, C., Busch, A. J., Goes, S. M., Kim, S., & Knight, E. (2017). “Dance for Adults With Fibromyalgia-What Do We Know About It? Protocol for a Scoping Review.” JMIR research protocols, 6(2), e25. 
  • Minjung Shima, R. Burke Johnson, Susan Gasson, et al, (2017), “A model of dance/movement therapy for resilience-building in people living with chronic pain”. European Journal of Integrative Medicine, Volume 9, Pages 27-40
  • Ande Welling, (2014), “What is Dance/Movement Therapy?” American Dance Therapy Association
  • Good Therapy, (2018), “Dance / Movement Therapy (DMT)”. 

 

Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical 

advice.

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