A surprising new study results suggest that undergoing painful medical procedures can be more, not less, painful when a romantic partner is present.
Dr. Katerina Fotopoulou of King’s College London, U.K., said, “We were interested in the role of individuals’ patterns of seeking or avoiding closeness in their relationships. We wanted to test whether this personality construct, termed attachment style, might determine whether partner support decreases or heightens the experience of pain.”
A total of 39 women took part in the study. They were given a moderately painful laser pulse on a finger and asked to rate their pain intensity. The electrical activity in their brains was also measured, to view the strength of the “spike” after each laser pulse. Questionnaires were also completed on the extent to which each woman sought or avoided closeness, or emotional intimacy, in their relationship.
Results showed that pain was not reduced by having a partner present. In fact, the presence of a partner often made the pain feel worse, especially for the women who said they most avoided closeness. This finding was backed up by both pain ratings and in their brain activity.
For women who did seek closeness in their relationships, having a partner present had no significant effect either way on the pain they felt.
The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Said Fotopoulou, “Overall, this study suggests that partner support during pain may need to be tailored to individual personality traits and coping preferences. Individuals who avoid closeness may find that the presence of others disrupts their preferred method of coping with threats on their own.
“This may actually maintain the threat value of pain and ultimately heighten an individual’s pain experience. This hypothesis was further supported by the finding that electrical activity in the brains of these individuals was influenced by partner presence in the same way as their subjective pain report and particularly in areas typically associated with processing bodily threats.”
Fotopoulou added, “Previous research has shown that women prefer to have their partners present during childbirth and they make less use of painkillers after labor. The different results of this controlled experiment could suggest that some of the previous results may not necessarily relate to the sensation of physical pain, but the broader meanings and needs associated with childbirth.
“The physical and psychological nature of labor pain may simply be different than other types of pain. Future studies could test how having a partner present during labor affects the pain felt by women who tend to avoid closeness in relationships.”
The same research team carried out a review of several other studies on the effect on pain of an observer or “social partner.” They looked at 26 studies in which participants were exposed to pain under varying interpersonal circumstances.
This suggested that, overall, “unambiguously positive” verbal and nonverbal interactions or positive interactions reduce pain, while negative, mixed, or ambiguous interactions increase pain. Results also showed that pain was affected by the perception of the social partner as active or capable of being active; the social partner’s intentions; the pre-existing relationship with the social partner, and personal coping styles.
“Few studies have focused on the modulation of pain by social factors, despite a plethora of clinical, correlational findings pointing to associations between pain and the social context in which it occurs,” they write in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
“Close relationships are beneficial to both mental and physical health, including stress and pain. For example, a wealth of research has shown that support from others is linked to beneficial effects on physiological and psychological well-being, while social isolation and poor quality relationships are detrimental to health.
“However, support from others is not a panacea; rather, the effects of social support on health, such as stress and pain, depend on the facet of social support studied and on factors such as gender or relationship characteristics.
“Here we present the first review of experimental studies addressing how interpersonal factors, such as the presence, behavior, and spatial proximity of an observer, modulate pain.”
Based on their findings, they argue that “interpersonal interactions during pain may function as social, predictive signals of contextual threat or safety and as such influence the salience of painful stimuli.”
Krahe, C. et al. Attachment style moderates partner presence effects on pain: A laser-evoked potentials study. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 21 January 2015.
Krahe, C. et al. The Social Modulation of Pain: Others as Predictive Signals of Salience – a Systematic Review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 23 July 2013, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00386