Pain: Just Think No

August 18, 1996

The next time someone tells you that pain is all in your head, they could be at least partially right, according to a study led by Johns Hopkins researchers. Results suggest that "positive thinking" may help some people cope with pain better, while negative thoughts may worsen the pain by intensifying the anxiety everyone has about hurting.

The study will be presented Aug. 18 at the eighth annual World Congress on Pain in Vancouver.

In the study, 72 people held their hands in ice water and concentrated either on positive, negative or neutral messages rehearsed before the tests. All were evaluated for pain anxiety in a written test as well. The results found that people with high anxiety withdrew their hands from the ice water much sooner than people with a normal concern about pain, but that the positive messages nearly doubled the pain threshold and tolerance of both groups. Negative messages significantly lowered the pain threshold and tolerance in both groups. Threshold is the first feeling of pain; tolerance measures how long the pain can be withstood.

"These findings support our belief that most pain involves both a biological cause and the emotional response to it, and that treatment should address both these factors," says Peter S. Staats, M.D., the study's lead author and director of pain medicine at Hopkins.

The study's positive messages were that ice water made wounds heal faster, improved blood flow, strengthened fingernail beds and had other medical benefits, while the negative messages were that ice water was harmful. The positive and negative groups also repeated terms -- such as honesty or dishonesty, health or sickness, cleanliness or filth, sex or sexual abstinence -- that cause positive and negative mental images and make the participants feel more relaxed or more stressed.

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point participated in the study.

Johns Hopkins Medicine

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