Skip to main content

Balbir and Paul - Unmasking Pain

Paul Chazot won the Fuse Award for Innovative and Creative Communications Initiative at Monday’s ceremony at Durham University for its pioneering project, Unmasking Pain. The project, funded by Arts Council England and ESRC IAA, in partnership with Balbir Singh Dance Company, Leeds Beckett University, Live Well with Pain and Space2, saw artists working alongside people living with pain and pain clinicians to tell a different story about chronic pain management.

Unmasking Pain was developed in response to the frustration of pain livers, who felt that their experiences were often ignored or diminished to a number on a scale along with feeling they did not have adequate forms of expression to tell their story. Through a series of workshops, initially trialled at Durham University, people participated in creative activities from dance and drawing to puppetry, music and nature walks to find new ways of exploring and talking about their individual experiences. This creative approach even saw participants ‘prescribed’ a music treatment to take home. Working with a tabla player and other musicians, participants chose sounds and music that inspired or relaxed them, that were then turned into their own personalised recordings. In another, a puppeteer shared handmade puppets of each of the participants who held conversations with themselves through their puppets. ** dismantled her puppet so she can carry it round in her handbag as it makes her smile every time she sees it. Artists shared their own experiences of living with pain and creative journeys of learning how to tell their stories, inspiring participants to find their own voice and unlock their own creativity.

Some participants and artists had a mask made of their faces at the beginning and end of the project to capture changes in facial expression as part of measuring the impact of taking part. Researchers at Durham University also used state of the art technology to measure the impact of the project on its participants. Across the board the findings showed that the need of all participants for pain medication decreased or stayed the same during the project. It also supported all of them to become more open to alternative pain management in the future, a crucial change in the fight to reduce use of opioid-based medication.

Through the concept of Unmasking Pain, participants have been able to unmask themselves and reconnect with their own identities and creativity again. Sometimes, the creative activities are a distraction, muting the pain to their minds and at other times they offer opportunities of self-discovery and new strategies to cope with pain. To the point that pain was rarely a topic of conversation as the project progressed.

The project has continued to develop across other areas with sessions in Kirklees, Leeds and Devon. Next month an exhibition of the project will be toured to GP practices in Durham and Leeds, after GPs said that they needed this project in their surgeries to support the many patients they treat each day living with pain.

Durham University’s Professor Paul Chazot said “This unique combination of Artists, Scientists, Health staff and Expert Pain Livers has come up with a winner, to give individuals their voice and new creative ways to self-manage their unique version of persistent pain. As scientists, we can provide both objective and subjective measurements of the effects of this approach on the physiological, physical and mental health status of the participants, to give a holistic validation of what we can already see their “faces”

Balbir Singh reacted to receiving the award: “We are excited to accept this award on behalf of the Unmasking Pain partnership. To get this award and the recognition for the project is all thanks to the openness of the participants to engage and keep coming back and skills and expertise generously given by partners and artists. We have all been in unknown territory and where we go next is exciting with the journey of transforming peoples lives through the arts. Thanks to the ground-breaking evaluation methods of Durham University and the human stories rigorously documented by Leeds Beckett University and an uplift in Arts Council NPO funding we have the evidence to support rolling out of this project across the NE.”

Or in the words of Hannah Farley, a local authority Principal Culture Programmes Officer and pain liver “This is a gamechanger!”

“It takes my mind off things like the pain is in the background, not in the forefront so much” Participant

I’ve always been creative but never knew it” Participant

“60% of the pain is in my mind and 40% is in my back. We can treat the mind creatively”. Kali Chandrasegaram, dance artist on the project and pain liver


Durham University Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing Pain Challenge Academy

In addition to understanding the biomedical symptoms of pain with reference to the physiology and biochemistry of the body and how it is perceived in the brain, the Pain Academy is also interested in the factors outside of the body that influences how we feel pain. This includes our prior experience with pain, the prevalence of pain in our family, our diet, physical activity, our jobs, the list goes on. We also work as part of multidisciplinary teams to find ways to interact with and mitigate pain. Understanding the pharmacology and behavioural effect of medical interventions such as painkillers is just as important as knowing when to apply more social mediations (like walking and talking and creative therapies). Our aim is to improve knowledge both within healthcare and the public to change the narrative around pain, opening up new possibilities for tackling it that have not been considered before.

Balbir Singh Dance Company

BSDC, based in Leeds, is an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation. Founded in 1998 it has become one leading national dance company that specialises in blending contemporary western dance and classical Indian Kathak. With dance at its heart, drawing on diverse influences to create work that can be pure dance, cross-art-form collaborations as well as non-arts innovative partnerships and presents work to diverse audiences in the UK and internationally.

Unmasking Pain Partnership

Unmasking Pain is a pilot project exploring creative approaches to telling stories of life with persistent pain that is funded by the Arts Council England. The project is led by Balbir Singh Collaborations, a funded dance organisation, in partnership with Space2, an award winning arts and social change charity based in inner East Leeds. The project involves pain specialists from the Pain Academy at Durham University, the Live Well with Pain resource for pain management, and the Centre for Pain Research at Leeds Beckett.

Fuse Awards

Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, is a partnership of public health researchers across the five universities in North=East England. The Centre works with policy makers, practice partners, the voluntary & community sector, and the public to improve health and wellbeing and tackle inequalities. Find out more here: