Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looking at affected body parts reduces pain

Here's an interesting little study showing that acute physical pain is diminished in intensity when one is looking at the affected body part;   if this body part is artificially made to look larger, then the subjective pain is reduced even further. 

 In applying this type of idea to psychological pain, I guess one could say that "looking at the affected body part" could translate to discussing the problem in a therapeutic dialog. 

A limitation of the study, and with pain studies in general, is that a brief intervention for an acute pain may not necessarily be equivalently helpful as a prolonged intervention for a chronic pain.  In fact, some effective physical treatments for acute pain potentially exacerbate a chronic or recurrent pain disorder (e.g. using opiates to treat mechanical back pain or migraine). 

However, I believe that studies of this type do illustrate that simple, brief psychological techniques can be surprisingly powerful in modulating perceptions or sensation.  


Anonymous said...


My first guess was that this is related to mindfulness.

Mindfulness, which as you know, is a big part of so many religious practices around the world (though is mostly known in the West, for its association with Buddhism). And to focus on the pain, mindfully, tends to diminish it, at least for the time being.

However, the mechanism at work in this study is perhaps related to distraction combined with mindfulness, since it is not the pain that is the subject of the participants' attention.

By observing the affected area, we're taking an action, which is different from the internal and subjective reaction to pain, one that is often associated with worries and catastrophic ruminations.

To ask one to focus on something else--let's say an orange--mindfully may prove difficult as it is natural to return to the pain, which is more relevant to the person's situation. Hence, to focus on the body part, is both relevant enough to the pain and yet, distant enough to allow certain objectivity and mastery.

This is pure speculation of course as I have no background in pain research.

Thank you for posting.


GK said...

Thank you. I suppose there could be a component of distraction here, yet the variable size of the body part images used in the study would control for that element. When subjects looked at a larger image of their affected hand, they experienced more "pain relief." When the image was smaller, there was less "pain relief." Distraction alone would arguably be similar regardless of the size of the image. Also, it is a classic pain relief attempt to distract oneself by looking away, rather than look directly at, a painful body part (e.g. when having a needle for a blood test). Yet this study shows that such "distraction" would actually increase pain.
I suspect the mindfulness angle is quite apt, though, as direct perception is not an avoidance or a reflexive act, but a potentially quiet, aware acceptance of a painful stimulus.
But the most compelling angle of all, for me, is simply that one brain region, if activated (i.e. through visual perception), can directly affect sensory perception and tolerance, instantaneously. And the study shows this effect with simplicity and clarity.

Anonymous said...


At the end of this video, the speaker discusses an experiment in which individuals reported more subjective pain if the pain was thought to be intentionally given from another, than compared to when the subjects believed the "pain inflicter" were doing so intentionally.

GK said...

Thanks, another great talk from TED.com.

The therapeutic avenues these ideas suggest include:
1) building an attitude which affirms the value and authenticity of one's self and experience could help to increase a sense of satisfaction or pleasure, and to reduce pain. So, for example, if one is struggling with a work, academic, or symptom management task, that struggle could be more enjoyable or less painful if the process itself is consciously recognized as valuable, authentic, or even sacred--just as a valuable original painting is experienced in a more positive way than a forgery.
2) Feeling persecuted by a malevolent force causes greater pain than experiencing the same sensations without the sense of a persecutory, punishing, or malevolent force being responsible. A symptom management tactic could therefore be to practice letting go of a punitive interpretation of symptoms -- letting go of blame, practicing gentle acceptance, distancing one's sense of personal identity from symptom complexes, etc.
3) be careful of activities in which harmful or destructive pain could become pleasurable--recognizing the tendency of the brain to be able to make this masochistic transformation at times. Use an executive judgment to determine whether a given activity is truly healthy (e.g. roller coaster rides are in most cases very healthy; but cutting or burning oneself is not), and do not rely simply on whether it is pleasurable or painful.