Scientists have shown for the first time why a feeling of control helps us reduce pain. The research, carried out at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, London, has implications for how patients with persistent pain can cope with what is often a debilitating condition.
Using fMRI scanners, which allow scientists to examine how the brain operates, the research, led by Dr Katja Wiech and Dr Raffael Kalisch, showed that when people feel that they can control their pain, an area of their prefrontal cortex associated with a feeling of security is activated. The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience today and have been welcomed by the Expert Patients Programme.
More significantly, the team went on to show that when faced with pain beyond their control, people who tend to feel more in control of their own lives show a lower response in the prefrontal cortex, indicating that they are less effective in coping with pain than those who don't expect to have control.
"Patients with persistent pain report that often it is not the pain itself that makes their situation unbearable, but the fact that there is nothing they can do against it which makes them feel helpless," explains Dr Wiech. "Unfortunately, this feeling of uncontrollability in turn tends to worsen the pain. On the other hand, teaching persistent pain patients psychological coping strategies to handle their pain usually does help reduce its effects."
Dr Wiech and her team set up an experiment to investigate how people cope with pain. In the first stage, volunteers were given an electric stimulus to the backs of their hands and told that they could stop the pain at any point. In the second stage, they were told that the decision to stop the pain was out of their control and could only be stopped by a person or computer outside the room.