Reduce pain with a 'visual trick'

Feb 10, 2011 By Clare Ryan
Reduce pain with a 'visual trick'

(PhysOrg.com) -- Simply looking at your body reduces pain, according to new research by scientists from UCL (University College London) and the University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy.

Published in the journal , the research shows that viewing your hand reduces the experienced when a hot object touches the skin. Furthermore, the level of pain depends on how large the hand looked – the larger the hand the greater the effect of pain reduction.

Flavia Mancini, the first author of the study, said “The image that the brain forms of our own body has a strong effect on the experienced level of pain. Moreover, the way the body is represented influences the level of pain experienced.”

During the experiment, 18 participants had a heat probe placed on their left hand. The probe temperature was gradually increased, and participants stopped the heat by pressing a foot pedal as soon as they began to feel pain.

The scientists used a set of mirrors to manipulate what the participants saw during the experiment. Participants always looked towards their left hand, but they either saw their own hand, or a wooden object appearing at the hand’s location.

The team found that simply viewing the hand reduced pain levels: the pain threshold was about 3°C higher when looking at the hand, compared to when looking at another object. Next, the team used concave and convex mirrors to show the hand as either enlarged or reduced in size.

When the hand was seen as enlarged, participants tolerated even greater levels of heat from the probe before reporting pain. When the hand was seen as smaller than its true size, participants reported pain at lower temperatures than when viewing the hand at its normal size. This suggests that the experience of pain arises in parts of the brain that represent the size of the body.

The scientists’ ‘visual trick’ may have influenced the brain’s spatial maps of the skin. The results suggest that the processing of pain is closely linked to these brain maps of the skin.

Professor Patrick Haggard said: “Many psychological therapies for pain focus on the painful stimulus, for example by changing expectations, or by teaching distraction techniques. However, thinking beyond the stimulus that causes pain, to the body itself, may have novel therapeutic implications. For example, when a child goes to the doctor for a blood test, we tell them it will hurt less if they don’t look at the needle. Our results suggest that they should look at their arm, but they should try to avoid seeing the needle, if that is possible!”

Explore further: The Edwardians were also fans of brain training

More information: Research paper in Psychological Science

Related Stories

Pain is in the eyes of the beholder

Nov 25, 2008

By manipulating the appearance of a chronically achy hand, researchers have found they could increase or decrease the pain and swelling in patients moving their symptomatic limbs. The findings—reported in the November 25th ...

Acute pain is eased with the touch of a hand

Sep 23, 2010

There may be a very good reason that people naturally clutch their hand after receiving an injury. A new report published online on September 23 in Current Biology shows that self-touch offers significant relief for acute ...

Switch off enzyme to control chronic pain, say researchers

Jan 12, 2011

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto has developed a new drug targeted at parts of the brain and spinal cord associated with pain perception, which may more effectively control chronic pain caused by nerve injuries.

The price of pain and the value of suffering

Apr 22, 2009

During these trying financial times, the cost of healthcare and how much we are willing to pay for it is at the top of our economic concerns. The financial value of pain has a wide ranging influence, affecting drug prices ...

Recommended for you

The Edwardians were also fans of brain training

9 minutes ago

Brain-training programmes are all the rage. They are part of a growing digital brain-health industry that earned more than US$1 billion in revenue in 2012 and is estimated to reach US$6 billion by 2020. The extent to which they actually improve brain function re ...

Report advocates improved police training

Aug 29, 2014

A new report released yesterday by the Mental Health Commission of Canada identifies ways to improve the mental health training and education that police personnel receive.

Meaningful relationships can help you thrive

Aug 29, 2014

Deep and meaningful relationships play a vital role in overall well-being. Past research has shown that individuals with supportive and rewarding relationships have better mental health, higher levels of subjective well-being ...

User comments : 0