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J Pain. 2006 Jan;7(1):11-20.

Pain and attention: attentional disruption or distraction?

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Department of Psychopharmacology, Utrecht Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences and Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience, Utrecht University, The Netherlands.


The effect of pain processing on attention capacity during visual search was examined in 2 experiments. In the first experiment, we investigated whether pain draws on the same limited resources as attentional task performance. It was hypothesized that pain would negatively affect task performance under different load manipulations. Low and high load conditions of a visual search task were presented in a mixed design combined with a painfully cold or neutral cold pressor test. Performance was not affected by pain. In experiment 2, low and high load conditions were separated in different blocks to study whether pain perception was affected when task load could be anticipated. Again, pain did not significantly affect task performance. In contrast, subjective pain intensity scores were significantly lower after performing the high load compared with the low load condition. Simultaneous recordings of event-related potentials indicated an increased negativity during the pain compared with the control condition. Also, in the early (350 to 450 msec) interval of event-related potentials, an increase in negativity was found for the high load compared with the low load condition. Topographic distributions suggested that pain and task load are mediated by qualitatively different resources.


Our findings indicate that highly demanding attentional task performance and pain processing interfere as a result of difficulties in allocating attention. The clinical relevance of this finding is that performing a highly demanding task might distract attention from pain.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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