Surprising findings: Pain can be alleviated better by strangers

Surprising findings: Pain can be alleviated better by strangers

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Pain and psyche: the pain-relieving effects of strangers

British scientists recently reported a study that suggested that empathy shown by doctors can help relieve pain. But even if patients are treated by strangers, this can have a positive effect on the treatment of pain, as an international team of researchers has now discovered.

It doesn't always have to be medication

Most people first try to treat themselves when they are in pain. Some then quickly take medication, others tend to use alternative pain therapies. These often help as well or even better than medicines, as has been shown in studies. For example, aromatherapy can relieve pain. But self-treatment is often not enough and you need help from others. Then people who are "foreign" can obviously help particularly well.

Close connection between pain and psyche

It is known that pain and psyche are closely related and that social factors play an important role in how people feel pain.

A team of researchers from the universities of Würzburg, Zurich and Amsterdam has now investigated how one of the most important social factors - group membership - changes the perception of pain.

The surprising result: If the test persons received help from a person who was foreign to them, they felt the pain significantly less compared to the participants who received pain relief from people from the same social group.

The study was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences.

Examination of pain

"In our study, we measured subjective pain judgments on the one hand and, on the other hand, measured brain activation in certain areas of participants before and after pain treatment," explained study leader Prof. Dr. Grit Hein from the University of Würzburg in a communication.

The study participants received electric shocks on the back of their hands, which they judged to be painful, and had to assess their intensity.

Meanwhile, the subjects were lying in a functional magnetic resonance tomograph, with which their brain activity was measured.

In order to investigate the effect of group membership on the sensation of pain, the study participants - 40 Swiss men - were divided into two groups:

One group received pain relief from people of the same nationality as the subjects and thus their group.

The other group was treated by people of a different nationality who they considered "foreign": people from one of the Balkan countries.

Less activation in the brain

The result: "Before the treatment, the participants in both groups showed a similarly pronounced negative reaction to pain," explained Prof. Hein.

After treatment by what they considered to be “strangers”, the participants in this group reported less pain compared to the other group. This effect was not limited to the subjective feeling:

"We also saw a reduction in pain-related activation in the corresponding areas of the brain," said the scientist.

The finding, which may be surprising for the layperson, is in line with a central statement from learning theory. This means that people learn particularly well when the results are very different from what they expected.

In this case, psychologists speak of “learning prediction errors”. The surprise then contributes to the fact that the new experience, the new knowledge is “anchored” better in the brain.

Surprise provides relief

In terms of the pain experiment, this means: "The study participants who received pain relief measures from a stranger did not expect that they would actually get help from them," explained the neuroscientists.

And the less the participants expected positive experiences, the greater their surprise when the pain actually subsided - and the greater the reduction in their pain reactions.

Even if the number of study participants was not particularly large at 40, the researchers are convinced of their results.

"The findings are validated on many levels - from patient evaluations to the neuronal response in the brain to the effect sizes," said Grit Hein.

Nevertheless, it is a first study in this area, which must now be tested outside the laboratory.

Finally, the results could be relevant to the clinical area, where treatment by nurses and doctors from other cultures is common today. (ad)

Author and source information

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