Hey, look over there! What’s that? My goodness, check this out! Stop what you’re doing and look at this! A new health breakthrough shows that distracting yourself from pain indeed works to relieve pain and makes the hurt easier to stand.
The health news is based on images produced by high-resolution MRIs of the spine. These were done as people experienced painful levels of heat, and reveal that mental distractions actually stop the response to incoming pain signals in the very early stages of the entire process.
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What this shows is not simply a psychological phenomenon, but rather one involving neurons that limit the number of pain signals travelling up the spinal cord to the brain. Those effects involve opioids, which are naturally produced by the brain and play a key role in pain relief.
Researchers asked participants to complete either a difficult or a simple memory task (requiring them to remember letters) while experiencing a painful level of heat on their arms. When the people were more distracted by the difficult memory tests, they perceived less pain. The mind was focused elsewhere! What’s more: their less painful experience was reflected by lower activity in the spinal cord.
The researchers then repeated the experiment, this time giving participants either a drug called “naloxone” (which blocks the effects of opioids) or a simple saline infusion. The pain-relieving effects of distraction dropped by 40% during the application of naloxone compared to saline. This proves that the opioids do play an essential role in all this.
The findings show just how deeply mental processes can go in altering the experience of pain. This can have significant clinical importance. Basically, cognitive-behavior therapy is not only beneficial for cases of depression and anxiety, but is also quite useful in treating the wide scope of diseases that cause pain. New answers for arthritis, migraines and the like could lie within these approaches, which could alter the underlying neurobiological mechanisms as early as in the spinal cord.