THURSDAY, May 17, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Mental distractions can act as a form of pain relief, according to a new study.
Study volunteers were asked to complete a difficult or easy memory task while a painful level of heat was applied to their arms. The participants perceived less pain when they were more distracted by the harder of the two memory tasks.
Using functional MRI, the German researchers also found that the lower levels of pain were associated with reduced activity in the spinal cord.
The study appears May 17 in the journal Current Biology.
The findings show that the reduced pain associated with distraction isn't just a mental process, but also a physical mechanism that reduces the amount of pain signals traveling from the spinal cord to the brain, said study author Christian Sprenger of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, in a journal news release.
The pain-reducing effects of distraction involved endogenous opioids, which are naturally produced by the brain and play an important role in pain relief, according to the release.
To confirm the findings, the study was repeated but with some participants receiving a drug that blocks the opioids produced by the body. Distraction was much less effective for those participants.
The researchers said their findings lend support to the use of cognitive behavioral methods in treating pain.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about pain.