Do you remember how it feels to fall in love?
In those early days of a new romantic relationship, we think of our new love night and day and everything seems right with the world.
It turns out these feelings of well-being not only affect our emotions, but also our perception of pain according to a pair of recently released studies.
In the studies, participants were subjected to increasing levels of heat on their left hand using a thermode to determine a baseline of moderate pain and high pain for each individual.
Afterwards, the participants were repeatedly subjected to random periods of no pain, moderate pain and high pain under three different conditions: while viewing a picture of the face of their romantic partner, while viewing a picture of an equally attractive acquaintance, and while performing a non-emotional distraction task shown in other trials to also reduce pain.
Throughout the process, the study participants were inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to measure what parts of their brain activated during each scenario.
Researchers discovered that areas of the midbrain associated with reward / motivation systems fired up participants focused on their romantic partner. This didn’t occur during either the acquaintance or distraction tests. This area of the brain happens to be rich in dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with a reduction in pain. At the same time, when participants focused on their partner areas of the brain responsible for processing pain sensations had less activity.
Participants reported a 44% lower pain score during moderate pain tests just by focusing on a picture of their romantic partner compared to just looking at a picture of another similarly attractive acquaintance on moderate pain tests, and 12% lower on high pain tests. This rivaled or exceeded the reduction in pain from the formerly proven distraction task control tests.
So the end result… simply thinking passionately about your love interest can cut your pain in half!
The research team headed by the Chief of Stanford University School of Medicine’s Pain Management Division summed up the study results nicely: “When patients are doing markedly better and I find out they are in a new, passionate relationship, I may be less likely to think it’s the new medication I put them on… I realize that maybe it has nothing to do with me.”
Seems to me it can’t hurt to give love a chance before taking more pain medicine…
“To be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anesthesia.” – H.L. Mencken
Sex and Back Pain
Dieguez D. Love Can Alleviate Pain. Brain Blogger Nueroscience & Neurology. 2010 Dec 24.
Xu X, et al. Reward and motivation systems: a brain mapping study of early-stage intense romantic love in Chinese participants. Human Brain Mapping. 2011 Feb;32(2):249-57.
Younger J, et al. Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems. PLoS One. 2011 Feb;32(2):249-57.