Functional MRI Shows That Empathetic Remarks Reduce Pain

Anke Brodmerkel

July 19, 2023

Physicians' demonstrations of empathy toward their patients can decrease the sensation of pain. These are the results of a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that was conducted by a team led by neuroscientist Dan-Mikael Ellingsen, PhD, from Oslo University Hospital in Norway.

The researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) to scan the brains of 20 patients with chronic pain to investigate how a physician's demeanor may affect patients' sensitivity to pain, including effects in the central nervous system. During the scans, which were conducted in two sessions, the patients' legs were exposed to stimuli that ranged from painless to moderately painful. The patients recorded perceived pain intensity using a scale. The physicians also underwent fMRI.

Half of the patients were subjected to the pain stimuli while alone; the other half were subjected to pain while in the presence of a physician. The latter group of patients was divided into two subgroups. Half of the patients had spoken to the accompanying physician before the examination. They discussed the history of the patient's condition to date, among other things. The other half underwent the brain scans without any prior interaction with a physician.

Worse When Alone

Ellingsen and his colleagues found that patients who were alone during the examination reported greater pain than those who were in the presence of a physician, even though they were subjected to stimuli of the same intensity. In instances in which the physician and patient had already spoken before the brain scan, patients additionally felt that the physician was empathetic and understood their pain. Furthermore, the physicians were better able to estimate the pain that their patients experienced.

The patients who had a physician by their side consistently experienced pain that was milder than the pain experienced by those who were alone. For pairs that had spoken beforehand, the patients considered their physician to be better able to understand their pain, and the physicians estimated the perceived pain intensity of their patients more accurately.

Evidence of Trust

There was greater activity in the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, as well as in the primary and secondary somatosensory areas, in patients in the subgroup that had spoken to a physician. For the physicians, compared with the comparison group, there was an increase in correspondence between activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and activity in the secondary somatosensory areas of patients, which is a brain region that is known to react to pain. The brain activity correlation increased in line with the self-reported mutual trust between the physician and patient.

"These results prove that empathy and support can decrease pain intensity," the investigators write. The data shed light on the brain processes behind the social modulation of pain during the interaction between the physician and the patient. Concordances in the brain are increased by greater therapeutic alliance.

Beyond Medication

Adjunct Prof Winfried Meißner, MD, head of the pain clinic at the Department of Anesthesiology and intensive care medicine at Jena University Hospital in Germany and former president of the German Pain Society, told the Medscape German Edition, "I view this as a vital study that impressively demonstrates that effective, intensive pain therapy is not just a case of administering the correct analgesic.

"Instead, a focus should be placed on what common sense tells us, which is just how crucial an empathetic attitude from physicians and good communication with patients are when it comes to the success of any therapy," Meißner added. Unfortunately, such an attitude and such communication often are not provided in clinical practice because of limitations on time.

"Now, with objectively collected data from patients and physicians, Ellingsen's team has been able to demonstrate that human interaction has a decisive impact on the treatment of patients experiencing pain," said Meißner. "The study should encourage practitioners to treat communication just as seriously as the pharmacology of analgesics."

Perception and Attitude

"The study shows remarkably well that empathetic conversation between the physician and patient represents a valuable therapeutic method and should be recognized as such," emphasized Meißner. Of course, conversation cannot replace pharmacologic treatment, but it can supplement and reinforce it. Furthermore, a physician's empathy presumably has an effect that is at least as great as a suitable analgesic.

"Pain is more than just sensory perception," explained Meißner. "We all know that it has a strong affective component, and perception is greatly determined by context." This can be seen, for example, in athletes, who often attribute less importance to their pain and can successfully perform competitively despite a painful injury.

Positive Expectations

Meißner advises all physicians to treat patients with pain empathetically. He encourages them to ask patients about their pain, accompanying symptoms, possible fears, and other mental stress and to take these factors seriously.

Moreover, the findings accentuate the effect of prescribed analgesics. "Numerous studies have meanwhile shown that the more positive a patient's expectations, the better the effect of a medication," said Meißner. "We physicians must exploit this effect, too."

This article was translated from the Medscape German Edition.


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