Wednesday, 18 December 2013

How To Control Pain

A new study, published in the November 2008 issue of the journal Current Biology* just blew my mind.

Researchers found that just by changing the way subjects looked at an achy limb, they could affect the degree of pain experienced AND the swelling of the limb.

This is pretty crazy stuff, but is just more evidence of the mind/body connection.

Here is the study in more detail:

Researchers found subjects who all experienced chronic pain in one of their arms. They then had them all do 10 hand movements that would trigger pain in the aggravated arm. The movements were such that the subject could watch their own hand movements.

They had the subjects do these movements under four different conditions:

1. With No visual Manipulation (control 1)
2. While looking through lenses that did not affect the size of their arm (control 2)
3. While looking through lenses that magnified the size of their arm
4. While looking through lenses that minimized the size of their arm

All of the subjects experienced some pain and swelling under all conditions, but the differences were significant under the different conditions, and truly amazing.

The lenses caused the subjects to see the arm as bigger experience more pain and swelling than the control groups, while the lenses that caused the subjects to see the arm as smaller causes less pain AND less swelling than the control groups.

Researchers still can't tell us why exactly this is happening but some guesses have to do with something called the, "top-down" effect of body image on body tissues. Meaning that the experience of pain is bi-directional (works both ways) between the actual cause of the pain and the perception of the pain causing stimulus.

Another related theory from one of the study's authors, Dr. Mosley, is that protective responses—including the experience of pain—are activated according to the brain's implicit perception of danger level. "If it looks bigger, it looks sorer and more swollen," Moseley said. "Therefore, the brain acts to protect it."

Either way, I find the whole experiment fascinating. It is just one more piece of evidence of the brain's role in how we experience pain.

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