Solving the Pain Puzzle – Explaining the Science Behind How Distractions Help to Relieve Pain

Has anyone ever suggested biting your tongue to distract from another source of pain? Or keeping busy at work to get your mind off other stressors? Or working out at the gym to ease tension? All of us deal with some type of stress or pain on a daily basis, whether physical, emotional, etc. To manage this, we find an own outlet that relieves the pain and keeps us going in our daily lives. For years, researchers believed that just the distraction itself was clearing the mind and relieving pain. However, new research is now revealing the previously unexplained science of how our body turns puzzles into pain relief.

In May 2012, a study was published in Current Biology where German researchers evaluated 20 volunteers to determine if performing a complex mental task could reduce pain experienced from a stimulus. Essentially, each person was asked to perform a simple or complex mental task (recalling a random letter sequence) when a 47 degrees Celsius heating element was directly exposed to their forearm. During the test, subjects were scanned in a functional MRI machine, which looks at nerve activity in the brain and spinal cord in real-time.

In the group performing simple tasks, they reported significant pain levels, with increased activity in the brain and spinal cord noted on MRI (correlating with pain sensation). However, in the group performing complex tasks, less pain was reported, with decreased activity noted in the spinal cord on functional MRI imaging. This means that a distracting activity doesn’t just put your mind in a different place to reduce pain; it actually blocks the transmission of pain signals to your brain. But this wasn’t the only interesting finding.

The second part of the research looked at how a person would react to the same conditions after receiving a medication called naloxone, which blocks the activity of your body’s natural pain relieving chemical. In the group performing the simple mental tasks, there was no change in pain reported after receiving naloxone. However, in the complex task group, there was a 40% increase in pain reported compared to before they had taken the medication. So, this tells us that the body is changing the way we experience pain while performing complex tasks in 2 ways: by reducing nerve transmission of pain and by increasing the body’s production of natural pain-relieving chemical (endorphins).

In many ways, this is ground-breaking research, giving scientists insight into the complex ways the human body will control pain sensation. For years, research has looked at how distractions help reduce pain, whether it be mirror therapy in amputees, meditation, music therapy in intensive care patients, etc. But the science has never been very clear…until now.

How can you then apply this information to control your own pain? The key is to find a task that requires focus and concentration to change your pain experience. Here are some options to consider:

  • Video games are a growing form of therapy, given the high level of concentration and hand-eye coordination required. This was initially researched in kids, to reduce pain associated with medical procedures; now, we are finding use for this approach in adults.
  • Crossword puzzles, word finders, or any other brain teaser activity requiring task-specific focus have been advocated by some groups as a method to shift focus away from the pain experience.
  • Participating in a hobby, such as knitting, sewing, building models, etc., can be fun, distracting and pain relieving. The fine-motor control and concentration required for each hobby make them good options to relieve pain.

While these approaches are unlikely to completely erase your pain, it may give you just enough relief to reduce medication, increase activity level and improve your quality of life.