Stress Intensifies Pain Response

A new study confirms that acute psychosocial stress has a dramatically negative effect on the body’s ability to modulate pain. Researchers found that although pain thresholds and pain tolerance seemed unaffected by stress, there was a significant increase in pain intensification and a decrease in pain inhibition capabilities in stressed individuals. Similar to being stuck in traffic where you feel helpless and have no control over the situation, stress produces a sense of unpredictability. While a limited amount of stress can have positive results in specific instances, overall it has primarily negative effects on physical and mental health.

The study led by Prof. Ruth Defrin of the Department of Physical Therapy at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, found that acute psychosocial stress is particularly problematic as the body tries to regulate pain.

Scientists applied acute stress tests on a group of 29 healthy young male adults to evaluate the behavior of the body’s pain modulation mechanisms prior to and after the induction of stress. They underwent a series of pain tests before and immediately after exposure to the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST), a computer program of timed arithmetic exercises, designed to induce acute psychosocial stress. The stress test was designed as a psychological trick; unknowingly, the test subjects had no way of improving task scores despite their best efforts. This provided the “stress” element of the experiment.

Not only does psychosocial stress reduce the ability to modulate pain, but the researchers also found the changes were significantly more robust among subjects with stronger reaction to stress. The type of stress and magnitude of its appraisal determine its interaction with the pain system.

Proffesor Defrin said:

“We were sure we would see an increased ability to modulate pain, because you hear anecdotes about people who are injured during fighting or sports having greater pain modulation, but we were surprised to find quite the opposite. Although there was no visible effect of acute stress on the subject’s pain threshold or tolerance, pain modulation decreased in a very dramatic way. Modern life exposes individuals to many, recurrent stressful situations.”

According to the American Psychological Association’s latest stress survey, 66 percent of people regularly experience physical symptoms of stress, and 63 percent experience psychological symptoms. The results of the survey draw attention to the serious physical and emotional implications of stress and the inextricable link between the mind and body.



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