Mental Imagery and Injury: Using your mind to heal your body

You’ve probably heard of mental imagery for performance training. This well-researched technique enhances performance by “practicing” technical skills (in the mind’s eye) and simulating environments to boost familiarity in specific contexts (e.g., a soccer field in France, a sailing venue in Tokyo, or a basketball court in the next town over). Imagery also improves motivation, reduces competitive anxiety, and helps with mastering nuanced technique. Beyond performance, did you know that imagery techniques have also been used in recovery from cancer, psoriasis, ulcers, and fractures?

As injuries heal physically, they can leave athletes feeling nervous and unable to perform previously learned skills. Just as imagery helps give an edge in competition, it can similarly be a “coping edge” during various stages of recovery and return to play. Another perk is that you can do imagery almost anywhere at any time, an easy boost to your rehab program!

Using Mental Imagery in Injury Rehab

When and how can imagery enhance your routine? Motivatedwith SMART goals and instructions from your PT or trainer, imagery can help with learning proper form for your exercises, helping you stick to and feel more satisfied with your rehabilitation schedule. Creating mental images of being in control of your body while completing your exercises, incorporating motivational or instructional self-talk (“you’ve got this!” or “squeezing quad”), and creating goals for your recovery process are a few practices that you can incorporate during this period of healing.

Functional Mobility

When you practice a skill in your mind, did you know your brain is activating your muscles as if you were actually performing the task? Imagery connects your body and mind, a connection that can easily be muffled by injury. Mental practice can help you regain a normal range of motion, especially when you’ve experienced a musculoskeletal injury. It’s important to keep in mind that mental practice of these exercises alone will not lead to recovery, but supplementing your rehab exercises with imagery can enhance motor recovery; imagery can help you relearn movements/skills lost due to injury, skills that are crucial to your return to sport.

Healing/Perceptions of Pain

“Imagine ice on your sore muscle… imagine the swelling draining from your body…imagine cement filling in your broken bone.” These are all examples of healing images that can help you stay relaxed and reduce perceived pain. In order for these kinds of images to be effective, talk with your PT and get a good understanding of the anatomy of your injury, (consider apps like “iMuscle” to help envision the changes you’re making) – so you can paint a clear mental picture in your mind. Mental imagery complements physical therapy and medical procedures, though it shouldn’t be expected to eliminate pain on its own. Recovery imagery can help you cope with pain (both physically and mentally) that you experience during your recovery.

Belief in Your Abilities

Mental imagery is commonly integrated into training regimens for people dealing with anxiety about their sport and yearning to feel more confident. Injuries, rehab exercises, and return to sport may cause you to feel nervous, just as competition itself can. Embedding adaptive self-talk into your imagery script can help you to feel more optimistic about overcoming adversity

*Read below for a few examples of imagery scripts you can incorporate into your daily routine!

Current Limitations of the Research

Many studies have explored more subjective impacts of mental imagery on rehab experiences. Nonetheless, research has found some evidence for faster healing, enhanced performance, influence over anxiety, and better coping with pain. It is difficult to say imagery helps one kind of injury more than another. Also, there is limited information on specific imagery interventions (scripts, schedules, etc.) that are most useful to include in injury recovery. This is where the science and “art” of sport psychology come together. There is no “wrong” way to do imagery, but an experienced practitioner can help! Use mental imagery to help you stay focused on recovery goals/benchmarks, motivating adherence with exercises and helping you to feel more satisfied with your rehabilitation.

*Example Scripts

“Now focus your attention on your hurt knee … Notice what it feels like … See what it looks like, the swelling, bruising … Concentrate on reducing the swelling … Imagine a leak in your knee and see some of the fluid drain out … Concentrate on the swelling going down … See your knee returning the its normal size … Concentrate on the swelling going down … As your swelling reduces, notice your knee feeling more normal”

“Scan the muscles around the knee … Begin concentrating on your quad … Relax the muscle … Feel the muscle become loose and relaxed … To further relax the muscle, imagine your quad being massaged … Feel the muscles being kneaded … Notice the relaxed feeling in your quad and all around your knee”

“Notice how your knee feels … concentrate on feeling relaxed … feeling stronger … You are getting better … enjoy the feeling” (Dworsky & Krane, n.d.)

For helpful tips on creating your own imagery script, follow this link to a resource Dr. Herzog created for the Human Performance Resource Center!

About the Author:

Alex Oldham
Master's student in Sport Psychology at Florida State University. Intern at Reaching Ahead Counseling and Mental Performance.

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