"The likely explanation is that the subjects were prepared for the worst and thus felt relieved when they realised the pain was not going to be as bad as they had feared," states Dr Leknes.
"In other words, a sense of relief can be powerful enough to turn such an obviously negative experience as pain into a sensation that is comforting or even enjoyable."
The MRI examinations revealed that the brain changed how it processed moderate pain according to the context and what the alternative was. When the pain was comforting, there was more activity in the areas of the brain associated with pleasure and pain relief and less activity in the areas associated with pain.
A future in treating pain?
Dr Leknes believes that the study illustrates that exposure to one and the same stimulus is interpreted very differently among individuals and that the experience is connected to expectation and context. Some individuals like the burning sensation of eating chili peppers, for example, while others enjoy sadomasochistic sex.
Also, envisioning that an even worse alternative exists than what is actually experienced may even help a person to interpret involuntary pain as something agreeable.
Nevertheless, Dr Leknes points out, pain is generally a highly unpleasant experience and current pain alleviation treatments are inadequate for many people.
"That is why it is so important to find out how and to what degree the brain can control pain on its own. We are currently carrying out basic research, but we hope that this knowledge will one day be applied to develop improved methods for treating pain," she says.
Would it always be advisable then for a doctor to inform a patient that a
|Contact: Thomas Keilman|
The Research Council of Norway