Monday, December 10, 2012

Distractions Cut Pain

It is established that distracting mental activities can minimize perception of pain, but how this happens has not been well understood.  A study published in Current Biology online has found that it is related to a spinal process involving opioid neurotransmission.

A study of 20 men with an average age of 27 found that distraction not only takes the focus away from the pain, but can dampen the body’s initial physiological response to pain through endogenous opioids.
Painful levels of heat were administered to the subject while undergoing functional MRIs.  Those doing complex memory tasks were pre-occupied to the extent that they experienced 19% less pain than those doing simpler mental tasks.

“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,” said lead author Christian Sprenger, of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany.

Sprenger and his colleagues repeated the experiment with another group of 15 men, average age 25.  This time they administered naloxone to block opioid effect or saline solution.  Perception of pain was 40.5% greater for those with the difficult cognitive task when given the opioid antagonist naloxone. This provided the evidence that endogenous opioids play a role in the distraction phenomenon.

“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,” Sprenger and colleagues concluded.  

For more information see the May 17, 2012 online issue of Current Biology.

This article was originally published in Pathways Physician & Health Professional Bulletin - Issue 25.  To download this issue in PDF format, or past issues, visit our newsletter archives online at


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