Many of us with chronic pain have noticed that when we get deeply involved in a task that requires concentration, we don't notice our pain as much. I always figured that was because we were focusing our minds on the task at hand rather than on the pain. But according to the findings of a recent two-part study published in the journal Current Biology, when our minds are engaged in a difficult mental task, our bodies actually send fewer pain signals to our brains.
Study Design and Results
In the first part of the study, researchers gave 20 young men either a simple or a difficult memory task that required them to remember a random series of 15 letters displayed on a screen. While they were engaged in the task, a painful heat stimulation was administered. This process was monitored by using high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their cervical spinal cords.
After the painful stimulation, the men reported how many letters they remembered and rated the intensity of the pain with a visual analog scale. The group doing the more complex mental task felt 19 percent less pain than those doing the simpler task. And the fMRIs of the men doing the more difficult task showed less spinal cord activity, indicating that fewer pain signals were being sent to the brain.
In the second part of the study, the researchers repeated the experiment with 15 different young men. Only this time, they gave one group the drug naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids, while the other group received a simple saline infusion.
This time, the participants who received the naloxone perceived 40.5 percent more pain than the saline group. This result demonstrated that the body's endogenous opioids, our natural, internal pain-killers, played a significant role in reducing the pain.
The scientists concluded, “Taken together, our results show that the reduced pain experience during mental distraction is related to a spinal process and involves opioid neurotransmission.”
I was excited to learn that the reduced pain I experience when I'm deeply engrossed in a mental task is not just because I'm focusing on something besides the pain, but because my body is actually sending fewer pain signals and releasing more natural opioids.
Although this was a very small study and involved only healthy young men, it still gives us important clues into how the pain process works. I'd love to see this study repeated with chronic pain patients to see if the results would be the same.
I'd be particularly interested to see a similar study done with fibromyalgia patients. Given the recent study that showed less brain connectivity and pain inhibition in people with fibromyalgia, I can't help but wonder what, if any, difference that would make in the results.
Based on my own experience, I seem to have or notice less pain when I'm researching and writing an article or engrossed in a crossword or sudoku puzzle. I used to think of those activities as ways to try to keep my mental functioning sharp but from now on, I'll also think of them as pain relievers.