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
Contact: Karen Infeld
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions