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A new study by Prof. Ruth Defrin of the Department of Physical Therapy at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine published in the journal PAIN finds that acute psychosocial stress has a dramatically deleterious effect on the body’s ability to modulate pain. Prof. Defrin, together with TAU doctoral student Nirit Geva and Prof. Jens Pruessner of McGill University, applied acute stress tests on a large group of healthy young male adults to evaluate the behavior of the body’s pain modulation mechanisms prior to and after the induction of stress.
The researchers found that although pain thresholds and pain tolerance seemed unaffected by stress, there was a significant increase in pain intensification and a decrease in pain inhibition capabilities.
For the purpose of the study, 29 healthy men underwent several commonly accepted pain tests to measure their heat-pain thresholds and pain inhibition, among other factors. In one test, for example, subjects were asked to signal the moment a gradually increasing heat stimulus became painful to identify their respective pain thresholds. They underwent a series of pain tests before and immediately after exposure to the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST), a computer program of timed arithmetic exercises, designed to induce acute psychosocial stress.
“To further test the effect of stress on pain, we divided the group according to stress levels, ” said Prof. Defrin. “We found that not only does psychosocial stress reduce the ability to modulate pain, the changes were significantly more robust among subjects with stronger reaction to stress (‘high responders’). The higher the perceived stress, the more dysfunctional the pain modulation capabilities became. In other words, the type of stress and magnitude of its appraisal determine its interaction with the pain system.
“We know from our previous studies and studies of others that chronic stress is far more damaging than acute stress, associated not only with dysfunctional pain modulation capabilities but also with chronic pain and systemic illnesses, ” said Prof. Defrin.