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Out-Thinking Pain: How the Mind Can Control Pain

Free 1 Hour
Psychological factors have an important influence on pain perception. Both in the clinic and in experimental settings, it has been shown that distraction reduces pain. Further, negative emotions increase pain, whereas positive emotions have the opposite effect. Other more complex psychological states alter the way we feel pain.

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For instance, empathy for another person who is suffering increases our own pain experience, and expectation of pain relief underlies much of the placebo effect. Brain imaging studies show a physical basis for psychological pain modulation, with activity in pain pathways of the brain being altered by attentional state, positive and negative emotions, empathy, and the administration of a placebo. The same psychological factors activate systems in the brain that control pain, including those stimulated when opiates are given for pain relief. It is important for the clinician and the patient to understand the influence of one’s psychological state on pain transmission. Such an understanding will not only help people living with pain to learn how to participate in their own pain control, but also help the clinician to create a fostering environment.

Learning Outcomes

How attention and emotions can affect pain
How empathy can affect pain perception
About the brain mechanisms underlying psychological modulation of pain, including placebo analgesia


Catherine Bushnell
Catherine Bushnell, PhD Dr. Bushnell was previously the Harold Griffith Professor of Anesthesia and Professor in Dentistry and Neurology at McGill University. She was President of the Canadian Pain Society and Treasurer of the International Association for the Study of Pain. Dr. Bushnell won the Frederick Kerr Award for Basic Research in Pain from the American Pain Society in 2003 and the Distinguished Career Award from the Canadian Pain Society in 2002. In 2009, she was awarded a senior Canadian Research Chair in Clinical Pain. Dr. Bushnell received a PhD. in Experimental Psychology from the American University in Washington, D.C. in 1977 and postdoctoral training in neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Her research interests include forebrain mechanisms of pain processing, psychological modulation of pain, and neural alternations in chronic pain patients. Current research projects utilize brain imaging and psychophysical testing to study the neural basis of pain processing in humans, as well as rodent behavioral testing and rodent brain imaging. Both normal pain processing and aberrant processing after nervous system damage are addressed. She has authored or co-authored over 100 publications in the field.

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