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Using Imagery for Burn Patients Who Itch but Shouldn’t Scratch

05 Jul



I work with kids who are healing from burn trauma at a local children’s hospital burn center. Do you think imagery and relaxation could help with the itch problem in healing burn injury? The children do a great deal of damage scratching and complicate their recovery.



Dear Christopher,

Yes, because an itch is a perception, refocusing attention somewhere else with a powerfully immersive, multi-sensory technique like guided imagery can definitely distract from noticing the itch, at least for a while, by creating competing stimuli. Most adults and practically all kids (who tend to be especially good at this to begin with), can develop this skill, which gets stronger and stronger with repeated use.

So any escape imagery with powerfully evocative words and music, will do well at seducing their attention away from the itchiness. In addition, it's a self-mastery skill that will help with pain, anxiety, distress, and other issues related to healing burns, not to mention for life in general.

Also, if you coached your patients to see the itch as a sensation that comes from the healing action of the tissue, and use the itchiness as a cue (a meditation bell, so to speak) to dive into the imaginal world and sense all the levels of healing going on - maybe in addition, envisioning some sort of protective numbness over the healing areas - that too would help, and increase patience with the process too, because of the positive connection between the itch making progress with healing.

Some will do this in a very imaginative, fantastical way; others will prefer to see pictures of how the skin cells actually regroup, and will want to stick with that.  Either kind of imagery is effective.

We have a wonderful program by Dr. Carol Ginandes, called Rapid Recovery from Injury that would be perfect for adults and older kids.  Also, Jeanne Achterberg has some nice burn-healing images in her first book, Imagery and Healing, that mostly use the biophysical, cellular content. 

Some of my imagery will also work for teens and adults: General Wellness, Relaxation & Wellness, Healthful Sleep, Relieve Stress… these too can serve as good, distracting escape material, while at the same time helping with physical or psychological healing. Healing Trauma might help with any PTS from the event that caused the burn.

For kids, Betty Mehling’s Magic Island is a perfect mental ‘getaway’ for a kid who needs distraction from an itch.

In addition, Ellen Curran's book, Guided Imagery for Healing Children and Teens, has some nice wound healing imagery that feeds more on the natural, imaginal skills of kids. 

Dr. Rox’s MindWorks imagery for the littlest ones, would be very helpful in distracting and empowering the younger children.  These are all terrific resources.

Thanks for the question. And good luck with this. I hope you pursue it.  Imagery could add a lot to your burn patients’ comfort and sense of mastery. 

All best,

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Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award