May 18, 2012

Distract Yourself For Pain Relief

(Ivanhoe Newswire) —Chewing fresh gum, thinking happy thoughts, taking deep breaths–they´re all ways we try and mentally distract ourselves from pain. New research shows there may be some truth behind these kooky pain-relieving tactics.

The research is based on high-resolution spinal fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). The findings showed as people experienced painful levels of heat, 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," Christian Sprenger of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf was quoted as saying.

Those effects involve endogenous opioids. The opiods are naturally produced by the brain and play a key role in the relief of pain. The research group asked participants to complete either a hard or an easy memory task. Both tasks required them to remember letters, while they simultaneously applied a painful level of heat to their arms. When study participants were more distracted by the harder of the two memory tasks, they perceived less pain. What's more, their less painful experience was reflected by lower activity in the spinal cord as observed by fMRI scans.

Sprenger and colleagues repeated the study again, only the next time they gave participants either a drug called naloxone (which blocks the effects of opioids) or a simple saline infusion. The pain-relieving effects of distraction dropped by 40 percent during the application of the opioid antagonist compared to saline. Researchers say this is evidence that endogenous opioids play an essential role. They conclude that the findings show how deeply mental processes can go in altering the experience of pain, and that may have clinical importance.

"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," the researchers say.

SOURCE: Current Biology, May 2012