Stress Weakens Pain Coping Mechanisms


Stress comes to everyone at some point in various forms, from test anxiety, traffic jams, parenting and marital challenges, work and money troubles and more, but scientists now say that the tension takes a physical, not just a psychological toll, as it weakens the body’s pain coping mechanisms. Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) found that the rapid onset of unexpected anxiety causes the body’s pain control abilities to wane significantly. The results surprised the scientific team because of informal reports of trained athletes or combatants injured in the course of action experiencing a higher level of pain control that allows them to continue under great hardship. However, the known link between stress, systemic illness and chronic pain holds implications for patients whose daily tension and anxiety put them at risk of undermining their physical bodies’ ability to withstand pain and resist sickness.

TAU professor, Ruth Defrin of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine led the research team, in cooperation with Nirit Geva, a doctoral student and McGill University’s professor Jens Pruessner, to assess the reaction of the body’s pain control centers, looking for any signs of weakening before and after exposure to sudden stress. Twenty-nine healthy men participated in well-known tests of heat-pain thresholds and pain control. The subjects’ coping mechanisms were measured prior to and right after the completion of the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST).

The MIST gave participants a series of computer-generated math problems in a timed test intended to invoke acute psychosocial stress. Subjects were told at the outset that the average score was 80 to 90 percent but the live feedback on the program tricked them into thinking they were only scoring between 20 to 45 percent correct, regardless of whether they were getting the correct answers or not. No amount of effort could improve the score ceiling providing the uncontrollable situation that precipitates stress.

Researchers’ analysis of the results showed that while stress did not have any apparent effect on the subjects’ pain thresholds or tolerance levels, the intensity of perceived pain increased and the ability to control the pain dropped dramatically. To further clarify the results, they split the group according to the strength of each subject’s reaction to the stress. The more strongly a subject reacted to the strain, the more his pain control abilities deteriorated. The research team concluded that the more strongly a patient perceives a traumatic incident, the more negative effect it will have on the body’s pain system.

Defrin points out that since the stresses of everyday life are unpredictable and recurrent, there is no way to completely avoid the tensions it causes. Nonetheless, people do not have to resign themselves to weakened coping mechanisms for pain and related illnesses. She reasons that while the presence of hassles and hardships is unavoidable, it is within each person’s power to develop relaxation techniques that help them reduce exposure to the nervous tension, drain off the excess worry and minimize the negative physical effects of habitual stress.

By Tamara Christine Van Hooser



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Image courtesy of Jason Swaby – Flickr License

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