A new report published in an online publication, Current Biology, published by Cell Direct, suggests that there are biological reasons for the fact that mental distraction can reduce pain. It has long been known that distraction can help with pain relief, but it was previously presumed that it was for psychological reasons, rather than biological ones. For example, a 2005 study showed that burns victims could deal with the pain of their treatment when given a virtual reality helmet that allowed them to escape into a virtual world. Researchers found that “immersive VR distraction can reduce patient’s pain ratings during severe burn wound care by 30%–50%.” For more information on virtual reality therapy, see this University of Washington website.
The Current Biology study was conducted by German researchers at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. Participants were given either a hard or an easy mental task to complete while painful levels of heat were applied to their arms. The researchers discovered that those who were given the harder tasks were more distracted than those with the easier, but that this perception of less pain was also “reflected by lower activity in the spinal cord as observed by fMRI scans.”
According to Science Daily, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans are usually used to measure brain activity, but adjustments have recently been made to allow them to monitor activity in the spinal cord as well.
After the initial research, researchers repeated the experiment, but this time, after giving the participants naloxone, which is an opioid-blocking drug. This time, the effect of distraction was limited by 40%, which researchers believe proves that it is the naturally-occurring endogenous opioids in the body that play a role in pain reduction. The Press Association explains that these opioids are the natural equivalent of morphine.
Although an article in the Daily Mail suggests that doing Sudoku puzzles could be effective in distracting patients from the pain they are feeling, the German researchers used memory puzzles involving letters rather than numbers in their experiment.
Undoubtedly, more research still needs to be done, but researchers believe that this study backs up the importance of mental distraction when it comes to dealing with pain, which could be of enormous clinical importance for the future. As the researchers put it: “…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.” Anything that can help ease the pain of agonizing procedures has to be a good thing.