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Mental & Physical Pain May Be Different After All

Mental & Physical Pain May Be Different After All

New research may rewrite how we believe pain is processed by the brain.

For the last decade, neuroscientists have believed that the brain processes physical and social pain in a similar manner.

Now, a new study from the University of Colorado shows that the two kinds of pain actually use distinct neural circuits.

Investigators are enthusiastic about the new finding as the discovery may lead to specific treatment protocols for each pathway. Researchers may also gain a better understanding of how the two kinds of pain interact.

In the study, neuroscientists used a technique often used by the computer scientists called multivariate pattern analysis. The technique allowed the researchers to examine brain scans that were taken while people looked at a picture of someone who had rejected them.

The results were then compared to brain scans made of the same people when they were receiving a painful heat stimulus.

“Physical pain and social rejection do activate similar regions of the brain,” said University of Colorado, Boulder graduate student Choong-Wan Woo, lead author of the study. “But by using a new analysis tool, we were able to look more closely and see that they are actually quite different.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

A study published in 2003 in the journal Science laid the foundation for the theory that social pain — resulting from rejection, isolation, or loss — uses the same brain pathways as that of physical pain.

The belief that the two types of pain are neurologically the same has led to some new ideas about how to treat social pain, including using traditional painkillers, such as acetaminophen, to try and ease emotional suffering.

The results of the new study are important because they could help scientists understand how social pain can be measured objectively, and how the brain creates these uniquely distressing experiences.

Ultimately, this could help direct scientists and clinicians toward prevention and treatment options that make the most sense for social pain.

“Though there are some similar psychological features between physical pain and social pain, they appeared to be quite different in the brain,” said Woo, of University of Colorado, Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

“If we find that social pain is more similar to sadness or depression in the brain than physical pain, that could affect treatment options.”

Investigators believe the findings could help scientists better understand the structure of emotion in the brain and how emotions are regulated. Experts believe the study is an important step in allowing scientists to test how the two types of pain interact.

The potential knowledge could lead to a better understanding of the relationships between emotions and physical pain and the connection between pain disorders and emotional trauma.

Source: University of Colorado

Brain scans photo by shutterstock.

Mental & Physical Pain May Be Different After All

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Mental & Physical Pain May Be Different After All. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.