Move Over Tylenol: Love and Distraction Ease Physical Pain

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Juliet stubbed her toe and your kiss will make it all better. It”s true, romantic love may ease physical pain. A study conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine suggests that it can. Participants who viewed pictures of their romantic partner reported a significantly decreased pain response to heat exposure compared to when viewing pictures of friends. However, the study also suggests simply being distracted eases physical pain too.

Fifteen men and women between the ages of 19 and 21 who were in the throes of the first nine months of a romantic relationship participated in the study. Each participant completed a survey that assessed their level of passion for their partner; only those deemed very passionate about their partners were chosen. The participants provided pictures of their partners and a familiar acquaintance of the opposite sex who was of equal attractiveness. These requirements were chosen to rule out the physiological effect of familiarity and attractiveness, two characteristics previously found to reduce pain.

The participants sat in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner during the tasks to record brain activity. The participants completed three types of tasks. In the “acquaintance baseline” task the participants were instructed to look at a picture of their acquaintance and think about them. In the “romantic partner” task they were given similar instruction. For the “distraction” task the participants were given a topic to think about that required a high level of concentration, for example, “Sports that do not use a ball.” While the participants completed the tasks, they were subjected to three varying levels of heat: none, moderate and high. After completing a task, the participants reported the level of pain they experienced on a scale of one to 10.

The participants reported significantly lower pain responses for each level of heat while thinking about their partner compared to an acquaintance. Interestingly, the participants reported a nearly identical decrease in pain during the distraction task. The images from the brain scanner revealed decreased activity of pain-response centers and increased activity of pain-relief centers during the “romantic partner” and “distraction” tasks, but in different areas of the brain.

Although this study reveals more than one neurological route to pain relief, it also proves that love provides a specific kind of pain relief. A showed that looking at romantic partners activates sections of the brain that have high levels of dopamine, a hormone associated with anticipating and retrieving rewards. In this study, viewing romantic partners activated reward sections of the brain that distraction did not, producing an analgesic effect that suppressed the pain control centers of the brain.

So all you lovesick people consider this: researchers also discovered that romantic heartbreak activates the same areas of the brain, which can unfortunately lead to anger and depression. Remember that love is a powerful drug that can both heal and cause pain.

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