Does distraction help with pain? If so, why? Is it because the pain just seems to be less when you don’t obsess about it?
Distraction is a time-honoured way to deal with pain. Watching TV, listening to the radio – even sex – have been ways that people have dealt with the pain of headache and other kinds of pain.
A study published in May in Current Biology hints at some amazing mechanisms in the body that go into action when you’re "distracted".
Scientific American describes the study in this way:
Sprenger and his colleagues told 20 male volunteers they would be participating in an experiment that would study concentration and memory. Each subject, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map their neural activity, used a computer screen to take a memory test called an "n-back test." In such a test, subjects recall a specific letter either one or two letters back from the end of a series. As initial sessions confirmed, remembering a letter two-back is more challenging than a letter one-back. Researchers gave volunteers either the one- or two-back test so that they could study the nervous system under two levels of cognitive load.
While taking the test, each subject received a burning sensation on the forearm, courtesy of a heating element that reached a little over 47 degrees Celsiusâ€”hot enough to hurt but not enough to damage the skin. After completing the test and heat stimulus session, each man rated the sensation of pain on a scale of 0 (no pain) to 100 (unbearable). On average, the amount of heat should have produced a pain level of about 60. In line with previous studies, individuals taking the tricky two-back test described less pain than those taking the simpler one-back test.
So there you go – proof that a lot of pain is just "in your mind", right?
Not so fast – there’s a twist to the story.
The fMRI revealed that something was actually stopping the body’s pain signals. And the interruption of pain signals was seen – in the spinal cord!
So – what was stopping the pain signals? That’s what the researchers wanted to know.
They wondered if the brain was releasing opioid-based compounds naturally to block pain signals. So they tried again – giving some patients a placebo and others a drug that would block those compounds.
Sure enough, when those compounds were blocked, distraction didn’t stop the pain the way it did in the previous study.
So is the brain involved? It seems so. But it’s obvious that we’re not talking about imagined pain that disperses when you use enough willpower.
Real pain signals are actually blocked by your body’s reaction to distraction – possibly one way the body helps you concentrate on a task.
Note also that this isn’t a cure-all that blocked all pain. The point is that it is a help – and in some cases, a significant help.
So do consider distraction one of the valid treatments in your tool kit. Just make sure that it’s distraction that will help, and not make things worse in the long run. (Now we just have to get insurance to cover satellite TV…)