Various times in our lives we are subjected to injections at a doctor’s office. For many people, the simple image of a syringe is enough to ignite a feeling of fear. A new study, published in the journal Pain, found that the best way to tackle the problem of an injection is just don’t look at the syringe, needle, or the injection itself.
The study, conducted by the University Charité, Berlin, gives scientific credence to what many mothers already believed. According to Dr. Daniel Senkowski, study author, the research found that the information given by the doctor prior to the injection may influence the intensity of pain the patient feels.
In the study the researchers analyzed the behavior of volunteers who watched several different videos: a hand being pricked with a needle, a second where the hand was wiped with a cotton swab, and one only showing a hand. The clips were presented on a screen located strategically above the hand of the participants, giving the impression that this was happening to them. While watching the clips, participants received mildly painful stimuli (shock) or non-painful stimuli to their hand.
Participants reported the pain from the stimuli they received as more intense and unpleasant when they were visualizing the video of a hand being pricked by a needle than when they saw only the hand (no needle). Further, when witnessing the video needle sticks they reported feeling more pain than when seeing just the cotton swab wiping a hand. To assess the volunteers’ pain sensation, the scientists measured pupil dilation, a demonstration of “autonomic” nervous system activity.
The situational expectations also influenced the intensity of perceived pain. When the subjects were advised that a procedure they were viewing was more painful, they reported that indeed the stimulation they received was more painful. This shows that when there is an expectation that a certain treatment will cause pain, the patient may well feel more pain, even if the procedure is non-painful.
Senkowski hopes these findings can be applied to medical practices to help patients cope better with pain. Before an injection, doctors should provide patients with information that will reduce the expected level of pain, such as information about the thinness of the needle, or that it will only pierce just below the skin and not into the deeper muscle. He further claims “the study provides empirical evidence in favor of the common advice not to look for the needle when you receive an injection.”
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