Diminishing Pain by Distraction

Painkillers can be effective because they block pain signals from getting to the brain. But distracting the brain from pain is an alternative method for intervening with it, especially for anxiety-provoking medical treatments.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When researchers started working on gaming technology for pain relief, they already knew a lot about how virtual reality changes what the brain perceives. NPR's Patricia Neighmond has this report on how and why pain can be diminished by distraction.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

Centuries ago, scientists figured out that nerves carried pain signals from the source of pain to the brain, where it registered as a conscious ouch. Since then, scientists have discovered how that pain is actually created in the brain. The perception of pain results from a complicated mixture of interconnections, connections between things like anxiety, fear, happiness and memory. Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer heads UCLA's Pediatric Pain Program. Memory can add to pain, she says, because major painful experiences are stored like little memory circuits in the brain.

Dr. LONNIE ZELTZER (Pediatric Pain Program, UCLA): And if you have some other pain later on--for example, if your pain wasn't well controlled after surgery, it's likely that those memory circuits might get activated or recalled and actually add to the current pain.

NEIGHMOND: Then there's context. We've all seen the kid who gets hurt on the soccer field who toughs it out in front of his or her friends, only to wail in pain once in the isolated safety of a parent's car. Zeltzer says that child probably did feel less pain out on the soccer field because their brain activity was focused elsewhere. And people who are anxious and worry a lot are likely to boost their pain levels because so much of their brain activity is focused on the expected pain. That's why it's so important, says Zeltzer, for health-care workers to try to help patients feel optimistic.

Dr. ZELTZER: Positive mood, comfort actually changes the activity in the nerve connections and the chemical environment that bathes the brain in very powerful ways to actually turn off pain perception.

NEIGHMOND: In fact, studies with Buddhist monks show that while the monks are meditating, almost all of the brain's electrical activity is on one side, the side that gives you a sense of well-being. The fact that monks can alter the chemical activity of their brains through meditation has helped motivate research into what more ordinary people can do to achieve similar results.

Dr. ZELTZER: I sort of liken it to having a busy signal. If your cognitive brain is involved in something else, it's almost as if there's no room for the pain signals to get up there. So it's a very simplistic way of describing it, but in a sense, that's how it works.

NEIGHMOND: So, for example, when children are asked to imagine being in their favorite place or to watch TV or a funny movie or to play a video game, like a magnet, Zeltzer says, chemical activity in the pain perception area of their brain is drained away, and the kids report feeling less painful sensations. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

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