Opposing effects of expectancy and somatic focus on pain

Citation: Johnston, N.E., Atlas, L.Y., and Wager, T.D., Opposing effects of expectancy and somatic focus on pain. PLoS One, 2012. 7(6): p. e38854.

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High-pain expectancy increases pain and pain-related brain activity, creating a cycle of psychologically maintained pain. Though these effects are robust, little is known about how expectancy works and what psychological processes either support or mitigate its effects. To address this, we independently manipulated pain expectancy and ?top-down? attention to the body, and examined their effects on both a performance-based measure of body-focus and heat-induced pain. Multi-level mediation analyses showed that high-pain expectancy substantially increased pain, replicating previous work. However, attention to the body reduced pain, partially suppressing the effects of expectancy. Furthermore, increased body-focus had larger pain-reducing effects when pain expectancy was high, suggesting that attempts to focus on external distractors are counterproductive in this situation. Overall, the results show that attention to the body cannot explain pain-enhancing expectancy effects, and that focusing on sensory/discriminative aspects of pain might be a useful pain-regulation strategy when severe pain is expected.