Pain is something that affects us all. It might be pain caused by a headache, or the pain of arthritic joints, or the kind of pain associated with a sore throat. No matter its source, pain hurts and distracts you from enjoying a restful sleep or an active, busy day. Over-the-counter medication may relieve your symptoms temporarily, but more than likely they will return with a vengeance — and you may inadvertently add new symptoms to the list when taking drugs.
Many people search for ways to relieve pain and make themselves more comfortable. Some of these pain-relieving methods require weekly appointments that may simply be too expensive for your budget. Other pain treatments target symptoms at the expense of the health of other parts of your body. There is another approach to symptom relief, however, which researchers hope can help reduce pain without expensive drugs or side effects. It all has to do with self-touch and the way your brain perceives pain.
According to British researchers, you could actually reset your brain’s image of your body to help eliminate pain. How does it all work? You carry in your brain a sort of blueprint of your body parts and where and what they are doing. This blueprint is called body representation. It turns out body representation isn’t a static thing — it changes depending on what you want to do with your body at a certain moment.
Most of the time, body representation works well to keep you oriented in the world properly. But sometimes signals get crossed. To understand the concept a little better, consider the phenomenon of phantom pain. This occurs when amputees feel pain in an arm or leg that is no longer there as far as the body representation system goes. Scientists think that phantom limb pain after amputation is due to a mismatch between the way the body really is (without a limb) and the way the brain represents it to be (as it was with all limbs intact). By updating this body representation, doctors have found that they can effectively reduce phantom limb pain.
British researchers took the basic idea behind this brain-pain connection and decided to find out if touching your hands when they’re injured could beneficially disrupt the body representation system.
The research team used a harmless method of “hurting” study participants: they asked them to put their index and ring fingers in warm water, while putting the middle finger in cool water. This creates the illusion that your middle finger is burning.
Once the participants were fooled into thinking their middle fingers were extremely hot, they removed their hands from the water. Some participants touched fingers from one hand to another, while others touched someone else’s hand.
The research team found that those who touched all three fingers to the same fingers on the other hand felt 64% less painful heat. The researchers concluded that self-touch was able to join both hands together into a coherent body representation, which in turn caused a reduction in heat pain.
This study shows that there may be other ways to think about how to treat pain by changing what the brain understands to be true. It may be possible, in essence, to trick the brain out of pain by making it believe different things about body representation.