Social Interaction Influences Sensitivity to Physical Pain

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

How an individual perceives pain is now found to be linked to social interaction. Scientists from University of Toronto have uncovered how social interaction affects a person's sensitivity to pain that they say has clinical implications that also extend to how physicians interact with patients.

Terry Borsook, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at U of T and author of a new study published in PAIN says, “Our study is among the first to show in humans that the perception of physical pain can be immediately impacted by the types of social experiences that people have in their everyday lives.”

Social Disconnection Reduces Pain, but has Negative Health Implications

Borsook further explains the wide array of studies showing social disconnection has a negative influence on immunity, cardiovascular health, longevity and post-operative recovery time.

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In the study, researchers involved actors who were instructed to act warm and friendly or indifferent. Participants were asked to rate their pain before and after the encounter. When the actor was indifferent, the participant experienced less pain sensitivity, but no change was associated from a warm friendly interaction.

Borsook explains, “While the analgesic effect resulting from a socially disconnecting event might seem like a good thing, we know from a great deal of research in animals and humans that social threats provoke the well-known fight-or-flight stress response, of which pain inhibition is a typical component, adding…”this suggests that many people may be exposed to chronic fight-or-flight responses, which can have many negative implications for health.”

When patients see physicians who are aloof Borsook says it could result in “underestimated reports of pain, with insufficient pain control measures being a possible consequence.”

Social encounters have an impact on pain and overall health, suggested by the study. The result of indifference from a medical care provider and the kind that occurs in daily life has implications that can affect general well-being on a daily basis – especially for those who fear rejection or feel socially isolated.

University of Toronto