Sexual fantasies increase pain tolerance

December 15, 1999

Bringing to mind a favorite sexual fantasy may be a good way to lessen pain, according to a recent study of college students by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin.

The work, which tests the authors' theory about the relationship between pain and mood, could produce simple, cost-free ways to lessen pain in a variety of situations, says anesthesiologist Peter S. Staats, M.D., who led the study. "It also suggests changes in the way physicians should approach patients experiencing pain," Staats says.

The new theory indicates that pain stimuli yield strong negative emotional responses. Operating on that premise, counterbalancing pain with a strong positive emotional response should decrease pain. Researchers set out to measure the effects of sexual fantasies a very strong positive emotional response on pain. "The biology underlying this theory relates to the idea that emotions are likely processed in the thalamus, a region of the brain also closely involved in processing pain responses," says Staats, director of the Division of Pain Medicine at Hopkins and an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine.

Forty college students were asked to plunge one of their hands in a tank of ice water and keep it there until they could no longer tolerate the pain. During a second dip, students were randomly assigned to one of four groups. Some were asked to think of a preferred sexual fantasy such as kissing, flirting and other enjoyable activities with a favorite partner. Others were asked to envision either a non-preferred sexual fantasy or a neutral fantasy (such as walking to class), or were not given any special instructions. Measures of mood, worry and pain were taken during both submersions.

Those in the preferred sexual fantasy group were able to keep their hands in the ice water more than twice as long as their counterparts in the other groups (three minutes vs. a bit more than one minute). They handled pain better and experienced less pain. They also were less anxious and depressed, and less angry.

Results were presented Oct. 23 at the 18th annual scientific meeting of the American Pain Society in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

"What this study points out is the power of emotion, in this case elicited by language, in treating patients," says Staats. "Students in the preferred fantasy group responded to pain far better than those in the non-preferred fantasy group, indicating that if we respect patients' choice and preference in designing pain intervention programs, we could improve their response to pain.

"Before 1950, physicians used the power of suggestion as a major mode of treatment. Now we're so pressed for time that we don't always have a chance to really converse with patients, to listen to their fears and anxieties. Whether patients think positive thoughts themselves or whether you say positive things to them, it will have an impact on their response to pain. The bedside manner, what is said to the patient, is important."

The work supports more basic studies done at Arizona State University in the 1950s by Staats' father, Arthur, on the causes and effects of emotion on behavior. In other words, if someone in pain experiences other sources of negative emotion, the pain will be perceived to be worse, but if pain occurs along with sources of positive feelings, the pain will seem to be lessened.

The current study's other authors were Hamid Hekmat, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and Arthur Staats, Ph.D., of the University of Hawaii.
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