Abstract Background and aims
Pain is not a linear result of nociception, but is dependent on multisensory inputs, psychological factors, and prior experience. Since nociceptive models appear insufficient to explain chronic pain, understanding non-nociceptive contributors is imperative. Several recent models propose that cues associatively linked to painful events might acquire the capacity to augment, or even cause, pain. This experiment aimed to determine whether contexts associated with pain, could modulate mechanical pain thresholds and pain intensity.
Forty-eight healthy participants underwent a contextual conditioning procedure, where three neutral virtual reality contexts were paired with either unpredictable noxious stimulation, unpredictable vibrotactile stimulation, or no stimulation. Following the conditioning procedure, mechanical pain thresholds and pain evoked by a test stimulus were examined in each context. In the test phase, the effect of expectancy was equalised across conditions by informing participants when thresholds and painful stimuli would be presented.
Contrary to our hypothesis, scenes that were associated with noxious stimulation did not increase mechanical sensitivity (
p=0.08), or increase pain intensity ( p=0.46). However, an interaction with sex highlighted the possibility that pain-associated contexts may alter pain sensitivity in females but not males ( p=0.03). Conclusions
Overall, our data does not support the idea that pain-associated contexts can alter pain sensitivity in healthy asymptomatic individuals. That an effect was shown in females highlights the possibility that some subgroups may be susceptible to such an effect, although the magnitude of the effect may lack real-world significance. If pain-associated cues prove to have a relevant pain augmenting effect, in some subgroups, procedures aimed at extinguishing pain-related associations may have therapeutic potential.