Talking about pain can intensify it.
Talking about your pain could actually make it worse, claim scientists. Far from being soothing, words and counselling can actually increase the intensity of physical pain, a study finds.
Warnings such as “this may hurt a bit” or “you might feel a little pain” can be counterproductive and actually compound feelings of discomfort, it is believed.
The study discovered that certain pain-associated words such as ‘tormenting’ or ‘gruelling’ stimulate the pain area of the brain – even when no pain is actually administered.
Talking to your doctor about your pain might therefore be self-defeating claims the researchers at Jena University in Germany as it stimulates a part of the brain known as the “pain matrix”.
“It is possible that those conversations intensify the activity of the pain matrix in the brain and therefore intensify the pain experience,” said Maria Richter of Jena University, central Germany.
The researchers, led by Professor Thomas Weiss, a psychologist, found both adults and children react with foreboding and experience a greater intensity of pain because the words trigger a reaction in the area of the brain associated with pain.
But the response may be a survival instinct in which humans learn to avoid pain in the future, they argue.
Prof Weiss said: “After such an experience it is enough to simply imagine a needle at the next vaccination appointment to activate our pain memory.
“Even verbal stimuli lead to reactions in certain areas of the brain.”
The professor found as soon as we hear words like “tormenting”, “gruelling” or “plaguing”, the exact areas in the brain that deal with pain are activated.
The team from the department of Biological and Clinical Psychology used magnetic resonance tomography to investigate how individuals processed words associated with experiencing pain.
In order to prevent reactions based on a plain negative affect the subjects were also confronted with words with negative connotations like “terrifying”, “horrible” or “disgusting” besides the proper pain words.
However merely negative words such as ‘horrible’ and ‘disgusting’ did not have the same effect.
And because patients suffering chronic pain are often asked to describe it, this could actually make it worse, scientists claim.
Describing having a jab, at Jena University, Germany, said the experience of being told “it’ll only hurt for a second” and then feeling a needle pierce the skin was enough for the words to act as a future stimuli.
In one task individuals were asked to imagine situations which correspond to the words and in a second individuals also read the words but they were distracted by a brainteaser.
Ms Richter said: “In both cases we could observe a clear activation of the pain matrix in the brain by pain-associated words.”
Professor Weiss added: “These findings show that words alone are capable of activating our pain matrix.”
He said: “Our results suggest as well that verbal stimuli have a more important meaning than we have thought so far.”
The research was published in the journal Pain.