Pain relief can be all in your head


Mental distraction can relieve pain. And it’s not all in your head.

New findings reveal that volunteers who experienced painful levels of heat showed that mental distractions actually inhibited the response to incoming pain signals at the earliest stage of central pain processing.

“The results demonstrate that this phenomenon is not just a psychological phenomenon, but an active neuronal mechanism reducing the amount of pain signals ascending from the spinal cord to higher-order brain regions,” explained Christian Sprenger of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.

The new evidence shows that endogenous opioids, produced naturally by the brain and key players in pain relief, have a key role.

The test subjects were asked to complete a memory task requiring them to remember letters while applying a painful level of heat to their arms. When the participants were more distracted, they experienced less pain. The less painful experience was noted in lower activity in the spinal cord as seen on fMRI scans.

They repeated the study using a drug called naloxone which blocks opioids. The pain-relieving effect of the distraction dropped by 40%.

“Our findings strengthen the role of cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approaches in the treatment of pain diseases, as it could be extrapolated that these approaches might also have the potential to alter the underlying neurobiological mechanisms as early as in the spinal cord,” researchers reported.

Their conclusions show how deeply mental processes can affect the physiological experience of pain. These findings could have clinical importance as treatment strategies are developed for people in chronic pain.

Source: Cell Press, MedicalNewsToday


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