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Pain. 2018 Feb;159(2):351-358. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001079.

Activity interruptions by pain impair activity resumption, but not more than activity interruptions by other stimuli: an experimental investigation.

Author information

1
Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
2
Department of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, the Netherlands.
3
School of Law, Psychology and Social Work, Centre for Health and Medical Psychology, Örebro University, Örebro, Sweden.
4
Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium.

Abstract

Interrupting ongoing activities whilst intending to resume them later is a natural response to pain. Whereas this response facilitates pain management, at the same time it may also disrupt task performance. Previous research has shown that activity interruptions by pain impair subsequent resumption of the activity, but not more than pain-irrelevant interruptions. Ongoing task complexity and pain threat value might influence interruption effects. In this experiment, we adjusted a paradigm from outside the field of pain to investigate how activity interruptions by pain affect task performance. Healthy participants (n = 69) were required to answer a series of questions, in a specific sequence, about presented letter-digit combinations. This ongoing task was occasionally interrupted by painful electrocutaneous or nonpainful vibrotactile stimulation (between-subjects), followed by a typing task. On interruption completion, participants were required to resume the ongoing task at the next step of the question sequence. Results indicate impaired sequence accuracy (less frequent resumption at the correct step of the sequence) but preserved nonsequence accuracy (similarly frequent correct responses to question content) immediately after an interruption. Effects were not larger for interruptions by pain compared with nonpain. Furthermore, participants in the 2 conditions reported similar task experience, namely task motivation, perceived difficulty, and confidence to resume the interrupted task. Pain catastrophizing did not influence the results. As in previous studies, activity interruptions by pain were shown to impair the resumption of a task that requires keeping to a step sequence, but not more than interruptions by nonpainful stimuli. Potential explanations are discussed.

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