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'Self-Touch' May Reduce Pain, Study Finds
Date:9/25/2010

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Sept. 24 (HealthDay News) -- You burn your hand on a hot stove. You grab that hand with the other, and sometimes the pain goes away. Ever wonder why?

British researchers did, and their unusual study suggests that you can reset your brain's image of your body to help eliminate that pain.

The researchers found that they were able to significantly decrease the levels of pain in the hands of people who thought they were experiencing extreme heat. Their method: they told the participants to touch three fingers on one hand to three fingers on the other.

The effects of the "self-touch" approach sounds more than a little peculiar. But it's a tool that "might create new possibilities for pain treatments," said study co-author Marjolein P.M. Kammers of University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in the United Kingdom.

At issue is the brain's "body representation," which is a kind of blueprint of your body parts and where they are in the world. "This sounds simple, but it has been shown that we use different representations depending on what we want to do with our body at a certain moment and that these representations can change over time," Kammers said.

Researchers have directly linked phantom limb pain -- in which amputees feel pain in an arm or leg that is no longer there -- to the body representation system.

"One hypothesis is that phantom limb pain after amputation is due to mismatch between the way that the body really is (without a limb) and the way the brain represents it to be (as it was with all limbs intact)," Kammers said. "Once the body representation is appropriately updated, the phantom limb pain is often reduced."

In the new study, researchers wanted to find out if clutching your hands when they're injured may beneficially disrupt the body representation system. Could it fool the brain?

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