Waiting for Pain is Worse than the Pain Itself

New research published in Science shows that people exposed to pain dread it so much they will take a higher dose of pain sooner than later to avoid waiting for the pain to occur at an unknown time.

For example, in this study 32 volunteers received an electric shock. A clock showed how much time would go by before the next shock. Most of the subjects chose a higher shock with a shorter delay. They dreaded the wait so much they made the trade off at least 50 per cent of the time.

MRIs of the brain during the study mapped out the neuro-response. The results showed subjects weren't afraid of the shock. They just couldn't stand to wait for it. This state of "dread" or state of unpleasant waiting did not create brain patterns normally seen with fear or anxiety.

It's not clear yet how this information will help in the treatment of pain patients. Researchers suggest patients may make treatment choices that don't always make sense. Some patients may seek treatment that will cause more pain earlier in the course of treatment to avoid waiting for symptoms to come back.

Working with patient expectations may be a key to successful treatment. More study is needed before we will know how to do this.

Anticipating Pain May Be as Unpleasant as the Pain Itself. In The Back Letter. June 2006. Vol. 21. No. 6. Pp. 63.

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