Art therapy: Another way to help manage pain

Matthew Solan

Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

When we were kids, art time was often the best part of grammar school. Who didn’t enjoy coloring, drawing, painting, and cutting-and-pasting? It was fun, relaxing, and you got a wonderful euphoric feeling from creating something you made. We need to get back to that child activity. It turns out that making art can be a powerful therapeutic tool for adults, especially in the treatment and management of pain. Called art therapy, this type of psychotherapy can help modify your response to emotional and physical problems related to pain.

“Art therapy does not replace the need for pain medication, but it can be used as an effective complement and reduce perceptions of pain experiences,” says Kelsey A. Skerpan, an art therapist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “It can help people better manage the symptoms of stress and anxiety that accompany pain, which assists with the recovery process and improves quality of life.”

How art therapy helps ease pain

Art therapy helps lower the perception of pain by moving your mental focus away from the painful stimulus. It is not simply a distraction, but rather a way to teach you how to relax and alter your mood, so the pain doesn’t control your emotional state.

A study in the February 2018 issue of The Arts in Psychotherapy looked at almost 200 people hospitalized for a medical issue or surgery. The researchers found that participating in art therapy for an average of 50 minutes significantly improved their moods, and lowered levels of pain and anxiety.

“When people are in pain, they often lose their sense of control since their pain dictates what they can and cannot do,” says Skerpan. “Engaging in art therapy helps them reclaim ownership in their lives in terms of what art they choose and the steps they take to create something unique. It can provide a powerful form of self-expression as well as a creative outlet.”

Art therapy is not to be confused with regular art classes. While they both create art, art therapy involves working with a registered or board-certified art therapist who guides you through the creative process while exploring how it relates to your pain.

For instance, you may focus on making a piece of art that represents what your pain looks like on that particular day, and then discuss how the pain is connected to the different lines, shapes, and colors you create. “Processing art like this can help people further explore their condition, which may encourage them to talk more openly about how making art affects them, their mood, and their pain,” says Skerpan.

Finding the form of art therapy that works for you

You don’t have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. The type of art you do doesn’t matter either. In fact, Skerpan encourages people to consider all kinds of artistic expression, including printmaking, mixed media, woodworking, and ceramics. “You also could revisit something you enjoyed in the past, or an art form you are interested in learning more about,” she says.

Typical sessions are weekly and last 30 to 60 minutes. The length and number can change as needed. While sessions are often individual at first, they may expand into a group support setting, which offers a chance for people to share their experiences with others. Think of it as a grown-up version of show and tell.

Finding an art therapist

Art therapy is practiced by a registered art therapist (ATR) or board-certified art therapist (ATR-BC) who has earned a master’s degree approved by the American Art Therapy Association, and has had supervised clinical experience in the field. You can find certified art therapists through the American Art Therapy Association.


  1. Wahiduddin Mahmud

    My wife of forty plus years suddenly died within hours of being taken to the ER, which left me absolutely unprepared about how to deal with it. I lost concentration on my academic/professional work but could easily resume my hobby of doing IPad drawing, which I shared on my Facebook. It helped me a lot in coming to terms with intense grief, both as a means of mental diversion and a way of connecting with sympathizing FB followers and friends.
    Wahiduddin Mahmud

  2. Jane

    I am looking for an art therapist in my area. Inlive in Halifax, NS Canada.

  3. Joyce

    I agree with John’s comment whole heartedly. I recently completed a Bay Area Pain & Wellness program. For Functional Restoration.
    Included in the program was lecture, physical therapy, wellness (meditation) and Art therapy etc. I found (rather “Re-discovered”) how much I enjoy and love art and the act of creating even if its just some days coloring! It gets you “out of your head” of the chronic cycle of pain and inspires you to think of other creations! How cool is that? All forms are art are heightened once that door is Opened!!!
    Joyce Gardner

  4. John Fronza

    I never realized that there was such a thing as an Art Therapist. Thanks for what you do for Veterans. I am a Vietnam Era Veteran and have been a practicing artist for a number of years. I am glad to read about this and becoming aware that these programs exist.

    I believe art is one of the most useful tools in the psychiatric tool box whether it be painting, acting, dance, music, photography, etc.

    I believe it has given me the ability to get through some very difficult times. I lost my wife of 30 years in January to Cancer and if it wasn’t for my ability to do what I do I think the journey of grief and pain would have been much more difficult without artistic abilities.

    John Fronza

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