Feeling the Pain of Others – Literally

New research finds that some people really can feel pain when they watch something painful happen to others.

Investigators say this is true especially among people suffering from complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a disabling chronic pain disorder in a limb.

In CPRS patients, both own movements and just observing other persons’ movements may aggravate the pain.

When you hurt yourself, pain receptors in the body send signals to different parts of the brain. As the result, you experience pain.

Researchers in Aalto University, Finland, found that when CRPS patients feel pain caused by observing other person’s movements, their brains display abnormal activation in many such areas that respond to normal physical pain.

Thus, the pain that the CRPS patients felt during movement observation presented similarities to the “normal” pain associated with tissue damage.

Investigators note that CPRS is a very complex disease with devastating chronic pain. Its pathophysiology is incompletely understood and definitive biomarkers are lacking.

The discovery may help to develop diagnostics and therapeutic strategies for CRPS patients, said neurologist Jaakko Hotta, M.D., of Aalto University.

In the study, the researchers analyzed functional magnetic resonance images from 13 upper-limb CRPS patients and 13 healthy control subjects who were viewing brief videos of hand actions, such as a hand squeezing a ball with maximum force.

In the CPRS patients, watching hand actions was associated with abnormal brain activation patterns and a pattern-classification analysis differentiated the patients from the healthy subjects.

These findings indicate that CRPS affects brain areas related to both pain processing and motor control.

Source: Aalto University