When you distract yourself from pain, you actually hurt less, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Columbia University said that study participants, who were subjected to slight pain, when engaged in a distracting mental test reported less discomforts. In addition to that, when a placebo "pain relief" cream was offered and distracted simultaneously the severity of pain reduce further.
The study author Jason Buhle believes that the findings shed light on how the placebo effect may work. "Previously, it had been thought that the placebo effect was the result of some perhaps unconscious mental effort, but the new results suggest that it relies on a separate mechanism from distraction" said Buhle.
In a study, researchers attached a heating device to 33 participants forearms, which delivered some pain.
As a distraction, the participants took what is called a "3-back" test, where they were given a series of letters, and had to say whether a letter was the same as the letter that had been listed three earlier.
In one experiment, participants were also given a cream to put on their arms, and told it was a pain reliever. In another, they were given the same cream, but from a different container, and were told it was simply for the workings of the pain-administering device.
Researchers found that the placebo cream and the distracting test both had lessened the participants'''' pain, but distraction made for a much more effective pain reliever.
Study researcher Jason Buhle, who conducted the research as part of his doctoral dissertation from Columbia University said, "Both placebo and distraction are effective mechanisms for reducing pain. You can combine them and you don''''t lose anything," Distraction has been found to reduce pain in the past, Buhle said, but the new study showed that those benefits could come in addition to those of a placebo.
"It's clear that distraction is very powerful, and it was not uncommon for someone with a distraction condition to say, ''Did you really turn it on? '''Buhle said. "Sometimes they won''''t even feel the pain... It is striking to see."
By contrast, he said, "Nobody says that after the placebo." Moreover, the use of a placebo did not appear to change how well participants performed on the 3-back test, which would have indicated some thought being devoted to the placebo itself.
Dr. Ian Cook, director of the UCLA Depression Research & Clinic Program, calls the finding ""intriguing," he also added that the study helps point to a new path for non-drug treatments for pain.
It would be interesting to see the effect of distraction on other conditions where the placebo effect has shown an impact, such as anxiety, Cook said.
In the past, said Cook, distraction has proven to be useful, particularly with children, as a means of reducing pain. Mostly, he said, it has been used in the form of humor, influenced by a 1976 article by Norman Cousins about the healing power of a positive attitude, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. But distraction goes beyond humor.
The use of placebo in medicine has been controversial, in part because it relies on deceiving patients to be effective added Dr. Cook
The study was published Jan. 18 in the journal Psychological Science.
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