Let's Talk About Pain

Chronic Pain Rings a Bell

What can Pavlov and his dogs teach us about chronic pain?  

I’m sure you’ve heard about Pavlov’s dog and how he started drooling when he heard a bell. Pavlov taught the dog to associate the bell with food. Once the dog heard the bell, he knew dinner was ready and he got ready to eat.

Essentially the dog had a conditioned response to the bell. Many researchers have focused on conditioned responses and how these responses may help or hurt individuals.

Now new research from the University of Luxembourg suggests that certain conditioned responses may help relieve chronic pain.

Here’s how it works.

If you have two competing sources of pain, the newer pain will reduce the sensation of pain from the older source. This makes biological sense. The new pain is an unfamiliar threat. The body needs to protect itself from additional danger so it shifts its neurological resources to that danger point.

Researchers wondered if they could condition individuals to mask their pain through this mechanism.

To test their theory researchers stung a subject’s feet with electrical impulses and then measured pain intensity levels. Subsequently the researchers introduced a new pain by asking the subject to put her hand in a bucket of ice water. As the subject dipped her hand in the water, the researchers made a bell tone ring in the headphones the subject wore. After several repetitions of this cycle, the researchers discovered that the subject’s impression of pain from the electrical stimulation could be reduced by the bell tone alone.

The pattern had conditioned the subject’s brains to associate the tone with new pain. The body responded accordingly. In other words, the subject’s physiologically reaction masked her existing pain even in the absence of additional pain.

This may be one reason why meditation helps so much in the treatment of chronic pain. This new research is significant not only because its findings may be used to help alleviate chronic pain, but it might put us one step closer in explaining chronic pain. Chronic pain just might be its own conditioned response.


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