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Wednesday 19th June 2019

Sad feelings make pain worse

1st May 2012

A person's perception of a painful experience, and the emotions they are feeling when it happens, can influence how much physical pain they actually feel, according to two recent studies.


The findings appear to give scientific backing to the popular advice not to look at a needle while one is receiving an injection.

Researchers in Japan studied people's responses to pain after they were shown pictures of different emotions, while a separate study in Germany found that people's perceptions of pain were affected by what they could see while experiencing it.

In Japan, 19 study subjects were shown pictures of human faces registering happiness, sadness, or with no emotion, based on the idea that the pictures would evoke a matching emotional response in the viewer.

They were given a painful jolt in the arm with an electric current while they were shown the pictures.

Subjects in the study, which took place at Hiroshima University, reported feeling higher levels of pain while looking at sad pictures, but the actual level of the current remained constant throughout the experiment.

Meanwhile, researchers at Germany's University Medical Center Hamberg-Eppendorf altered pain responses in their subjects in a different way, showing people a virtual image of their own hand being pricked or poked at the same time as administering an electric current.

Participants would be able to see either just their hand, on a screen just above the position of their real hand, or the image of their hand being pricked by a needle or poked by a cotton bud.

The electrical jolts administered were divided into those intended to be painful, and those intended to be non-painful.

They found that both the painful and the non-painful electrical stimuli were regarded as more unpleasant when they were delivered alongside an image of a needle pricking their hand, compared with the sensations induced when the hand, or the cotton-bud poking the hand, were being viewed.

They concluded that the study had provided new evidence to support the commonly held belief that to look at the needle when receiving an injection heightens the amount of pain felt.

Writing in the Journal of Pain, the Hiroshima researchers said they had set out to explore pain as a "multidimensional phenomenon", and in particular to assess the effects of sadness on the experience of pain.

They used a magnetoencephalograph (MEG) to measure brain activity linked to the experience of pain, in the hope of finding a neurological basis for previous psychological studies into the effects of emotion on pain response.

"The intensity of subjective pain ratings increased in the sad emotional context compared to the happy and the neutral contexts," they concluded, suggesting that sadness can modulate neural responses to pain stimuli at a physical, not just a psychological, level.

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