Relaxation methods for sickle cell pain: Progressive muscle relaxation with tension

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Sickle cell pain can cause you to sit, stand or move in uncomfortable ways that increase muscle tension, muscle weakness and pain. Find out how progressive muscle relaxation can help with this.

Key points

  • Progressive muscle relaxation with tension involves tensing groups of muscles and then relaxing them.
  • Practising muscle relaxation can help you learn to notice when your muscles are tense so that you can relax them.
  • This exercise should be comfortable and should not cause you pain. If a part of your body is particularly painful, try to tense this muscle group gently at first to avoid a pain flare.
  • Before starting, reduce potential distractions. For example, you might turn off notifications on your phone and ask others not to disturb you.

Sickle cell pain can cause you to sit, stand or move in uncomfortable ways. Your pain may also cause you to spend a lot of time sitting or lying down. All this can lead to increased muscle tension, greater muscle weakness and more pain.

Progressive muscle relaxation with tension involves tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups throughout your body. This technique can help ease muscle tension and reduce pain.

Progressive muscle relaxation helps you notice the difference between tense and relaxed muscles. If you can learn to notice when your muscles are tense, you can learn to relax them. This may help reduce your pain.

In order, the main steps of muscle relaxation are:

  1. tensing
  2. concentrating
  3. relaxing

You will start in one area, such as your hands, and then move on to a different muscle group.

How do I practise progressive muscle relaxation?

Daily practice is very important for people learning relaxation methods. You probably won't notice any changes in your pain the first time you try these skills, but that is nothing to worry about. It usually takes lots of practice before your pain eases.

Many people find it helpful to listen to a recording that guides them through the process of tensing and relaxing their muscles. Click on the recording below to try it for yourself.


How long and how much to tense and relax

The key to practising progressive muscle relaxation is to go through the muscle groups in a slow sequence (or order). Hold the tension for five to seven seconds and then relax for at least 20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group. The practice should take you about 10 minutes.

Progressive muscle relaxation should be a comfortable exercise for you and not cause pain. Clenching your muscles too much or for too long may make your pain worse, especially if you already feel it in many different parts of your body. When the audio instruction tells you to tense an especially painful part of your body, try to just tense the muscles in that area very gently at first so that you don’t get a pain flare.

Preparing your environment

You may do this type of relaxation in any comfortable, well-supported position, either sitting or lying down. To get the most out of relaxation exercises, reduce potential distractions before you start. For instance, turn off your phone and other electronics and ask others not to disturb you, if possible.

Last updated: November 22nd 2023