Can You “Catch” Chronic Pain?


People often mention feeling someone’s pain when if they watch them take a fall, but a new study involving mice has found that pain sensitivity might actually be transferred socially.

The findings came from researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. Scientists placed the lab mice in the same room, but in separate cages at least two meters apart. Half the mice were made to feel pain in ways including injecting a chemical irritant in their paw, as well as alcohol or heroin withdrawal, and then tested for pain sensitivity. The remaining mice served as bystanders and were not subjected to pain.

Surprisingly, the bystander mice were as hyper-sensitive to pain as the mice actually subjected to it when witnessing heroin or alcohol withdrawal. The levels of pain associated with the chemical irritant were half as strong in the bystander mice compared to those subjected to it, but still easily able to be recorded.

“We’ve shown for the first time that you don’t need an injury or inflammation to develop a pain state,” said study leader Andrey Ryabinin to newscientist.com. “Pain can develop simply because of social cues.”

These results could have meaningful implications for chronic pain in that it could explain conditions such as fibromyalgia, where pain is felt despite the absence of an obvious medical cause. It also shows that those who live with someone suffering from chronic pain could be at risk for developing the condition themselves.

“Vision is incredibly important in humans, so we see a chronic pain patient grimace and this immediately triggers a response in us,” said Ryabinin.

However, other researchers believe chronic pain is avoidable for caregivers or loved ones living with someone who has it. Frans de Waal at Emory University stressed the importance of communication between both parties and for caregivers and loved ones to gain a greater understanding of the chronic pain they are witnessing.

“It’s all related to the functional significance of being sensitive to the states of others,” said de Waal. “Being in tune with the situation of others is highly valuable for adapting and reacting to new situations.”