Chronic pain isn’t just a nag. It can make day-to-day life downright miserable.
It’s hard to focus on anything when you’re in pain. New research tells us why.
A recent study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, sheds some light on exactly what goes on in the brain while folks are in constant pain …
Can pain change the brain? If so, can the changes be reversed?
For this study, researchers recruited eighteen adult patients with chronic low back pain.
Before they were given treatment for their pain, each patient was subject to a functional MRI (fMRI).
A control group of sixteen healthy, pain-free participants was also given an fMRI.
Here’s what happened:
The first thing researchers noticed was that a prominent region in the frontal cortex – called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – was thinner in the lower back pain group than that of the pain-free group.
Next, during the brain scan, participants were asked to perform a mental task. They had to pick out a visual target from other characters.
Both groups performed the task equally well. The major difference was that those in pain had several more brain regions that were activated, including the DLPFC.
Once the brain scan data was collected, the patients received treatment for their pain.
Six Months Later
Post-treatment, the majority of patients reported being pain free.
Researchers then gave each one a new fMRI to see what changes occurred in the brain, if any.
It turns out that the thickness of the DLPFC increased in EVERY patient who reported an improvement in his or her pain.
Then, when performing the same mental task from the first fMRI, these former pain patients showed a significant decrease in brain activation than they did while in pain.
In fact, their brain scans looked like those of the control group.
New Horizons in Pain Management?
I found this study to be very interesting for two reasons…
1. It shows us that healing the body also heals the mind (quite literally).
2. It begs the question… could a focus on changing the mind first (instead of the body through invasive surgery or drugs) eventually become the preferred method of treatment?
More research needs to be done, to be sure. I just hope it gets done quickly.
Chronic pain sufferers may be the most under serviced…and downright mistreated people being herded through the health care systems of the world.
And despite all the cutting-edge research being done, (for example, we now know that emotions have a large effect on how intensely you feel pain. As well, it’s proven that stress and anxiety can change the structure of your brain for the worse) it seems like the day where doctors will turn to the mind as the first and preferred option for pain management is still far away.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion!
Deep down, we all know pain and love are profoundly coupled. Well, according to some Stanford researchers, it turns out pain and love overlap in the brain. And although love can hurt, it turns out love just might actually be a “pain reliever” as well.
In the brain, early stages of passionate love are similar to what drug addicts feel towards their drug of choice. In short, just thinking about the one you love kick starts activity in several regions on the brain – notably the “reward center.”
Because research has established that activation of this “reward center” reduces pain – researchers predicted people in the early stages of passionate love might experience pain reduction when the reward center was triggered by a picture of the person they were “hot” for at that time.
The study itself is sort of involved, but very cool…so bear with me for a moment and everything will become clear…
The Set Up
Stanford University chose students from its own campus, selecting 15 total (7 men, 8 women, average age of 20) who all described themselves as passionately, intensely, deeply in love.
(They had to take a test to prove their level of love, and all scored at least 90 out of 100 on a 9-point scale called the Passionate Love Scale – and all were within the first 1- 9m stage of their relationship).
Subjects brought 3 photos of their beloved, and 3 photos of a personal acquaintance that they found to be equally as attractive as their significant other (and the same sex as their significant other, too).
Because they were testing pain reduction, the researchers had to induce pain.
So, the first step was to establish a ‘moderate’ threshold of pain for each student, using an Advanced Thermal Stimulator – a small device placed into the palm that would generate heat.
Heat was generated into the palm of each student and he or she had to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10 (1 for little pain to 10 for intense pain) and say when they felt a) moderate pain, and b) significant pain.
For the group, 4 was determined to be the average ‘moderate’ pain level, and 7 was the average ‘significant’ pain level. They also established a “no pain” level with the device putting out zero heat.
Subjects were hooked up to an fMRI so researchers could observe brain activity throughout the experiment.
Three possible situations tested pain relief in relation to the following:
- Romantic partner pictures. The romantic partner baseline was established by having the individual look at pictures of their beloved and think only of that person.
- The good looking acquaintance pictures. The second situation involved looking at photos of the attractive acquaintance and thinking of that person – the acquaintance baseline. (The participant had chosen that acquaintance based on the fact that while they were equally as good looking as the beloved person, the tester claimed zero romantic attachment to the person.)
- A distraction control game. The researchers used a word manipulation game that had been previously proven to reduce pain… (For example, one question was: “name all sports played with a ball,” and the person had to list all of the sports he could think of…and yes, this technique is a common, proven tactic for reducing pain because it distracts the participant from the pain at hand).
Subjects all experienced each of the above scenarios under the conditions of no pain, moderate pain, and significant pain.
The article, printed online in October’s PLoS One, breaks down the 54 total trials clearly: “Each condition (partner, acquaintance, and distraction) by pain (none, moderate, high) combination was repeated six times, for a total of 54 randomly ordered trials.”
Viewing pictures of romantic partners and playing the word distraction game both significantly reduced pain in the participants…there was actually zero difference in the amount of pain reduction when comparing the two – both reported the pain going from 4 or 7 down to 1 or 3, respectively, on the pain scale.
However, viewing a non-romantically linked acquaintance did not reduce pain.
So distraction and love appear to be excellent pain relievers!
However, different parts of the brain were triggered to reduce pain during each situation…
During the word distraction game, the right orbitofrontal cortex was activated, which does help reduce pain in the short term.
However, looking at pictures of one’s romantic partner showed reduced BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) activity in certain spots, which lends itself to longer lasting pain relief than the distraction tasks alone.
In sum, this study shows us that there are other cognitive, non-pharmaceutical ways to eliminate pain. This study has added both emotion- and distraction- based methods as ways of reducing pain.
The prediction here then is that the pain reduction from love is longer lasting…
Pass The Passion Phase…
One thing though, this study only examined the most passionate phase of love, the 1-9 month phase…I can’t help but wonder if the passion-reducing love has a limited time offer – can you still reduce pain by looking at your partner’s photo if you’ve been together 10 years? Or 40 years?
A study using older people would better aid the more senior population – those most often affected by chronic pain!
Regardless, this study certainly adds to the range of knowledge on pain, and we must now continue to examine the pathways of the brain linked to pain relief in order to hopefully, some day, be able to eliminate chronic pain once and for all.
Sources: Younger, Jarred, et al. October 2010.“Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems.”PLoS ONE: 5(10): online publication only.
White, Tracie. “Love Takes Up Where Pain Leaves Off, Brain Study Shows.” Inside Stanford Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine, October 2010. http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2010/october/love.html
Have you ever wondered why swearing seems to be your immediate reaction to pain?
In June 2009, researchers at the Keele University in England sought to determine why the automatic response for so many people in pain is to blurt out swears.
The question at hand was, does simply expressing pain (in a shout, yelp, or cry) make you feel better, or, is it the specific words you choose to yell that helps to lessen pain? Do curse words contain a hidden power that has the ability to help decrease pain?
To answer these questions, researchers found 68 college-aged students and asked each to submerge one hand in icy water for as long as they could possibly stand it. They were trying to test if students could keep their hands submerged longer if they used curse words or non-curse words.
During the first trial, the students were permitted to swear out loud as often as they needed to see if it could lengthen the period of time that the hand could stay submerged.
During the second trial, the students submerged their other hand in the icy water and this time, they were permitted to say whatever they wanted, as long as it did not contain swearing.
(Fact – one reason behind this study was because the head researcher, Richard Stevens of Keele University, heard his wife hollering expletives when she was giving birth. When she apologized afterward, the nurses and doctors shrugged her off, insisting it happened quite often. Her husband wondered why and sought to find out.)
The *&%#ing Results
It was determined that, on average, swearing students could hold their hands in the water over 40 seconds longer than when they did not swear. (Considering the average individual could keep a hand submerged for only a couple minutes, keeping the same hand under the water for an additional 40 seconds was quite a chilling accomplishment!)
Why were the swearing students able to keep their hands in icy water longer?
Preliminary research has pointed to the amygdala, a gland that makes the heart speed up and the resistance to pain stronger, as the key. It is basically responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction, which you probably have heard of previously.
The working theory is that using actual cuss words somehow activates deep primitive negative emotions, which somehow triggers the amygdala to choose the “fight” response.
The fight response then raises your heart rate and decreases pain sensations, just like swearing after feeling pain.
More research is still needed to determine the exact reason why using actual cuss words is able to induce this response.
So, even though cursing is often thought of as reflective of poor manners, it may be that profane language has the power to decrease pain that general speech does not.
Keele University psychologist, Dr. Richard Stevens, summarized his findings and offered this sound advice after the study was over: “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”
Do you follow the doctor’s orders?
If you want to learn more about the amygdala and it’s connection to hypnosis, please check out this article: click here to read more.
NeuroReport, June 2009
Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2009