It may really be a matter of mind over matter - scientists suggest
it is possible to control brain activity to reduce the pain you feel.
The technique could help people cope with serious pain
Stanford University researchers found seeing brain scans and using mental exercises helped reduce pain.
A UK pain expert said the work backed other studies
which suggested changing how people thought about pain could reduce its
The research is in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Thirty-six volunteers took part in the study.
Heat was applied to their palms, with the temperature for each person set depending on what they found painful.
One group was placed inside a Magnetic Resonance Imaging
(MRI) scanner where they were able to watch their brain activity on a
They were then shown "live" action images of their
rostral anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain responsible for
Next, they were given various mental strategies to try
to train the brain to respond to pain differently, such as being asked
to think of it as a relatively pleasant experience.
Over time, the eight people who went through this
training procedure showed an increased ability to modulate their
response to pain.
Other groups were either shown no scans at all - and
just given behavioural techniques to help them cope with pain, or shown
scans of different areas of the brain, or those showing other people's
People in these groups showed no changes in how they responded to pain.
Dr Sean Mackey, who led the research, said the study findings offered great hope for people who suffer chronic pain.
"We could change people's lives.
"However, significantly more science and testing must be done before this can be considered a treatment for chronic pain."
He said it was not clear how people had controlled their
brain activity, but added: "We really don't know how anyone controls
their brain to perform an action."
Laura Tibbitt, 31, who took part in the study, has
chronic back pain caused by a horseback riding accident seven years
ago, said she used different thoughts to decrease the pain while
watching her brain scans.
She said: "I'd think of little people on my back digging out the pain, or I'd think of snowflakes.
"The goal was to exercise your brain, to retrain your
brain. Sometimes I felt like I had made a change in my brain. The pain
was never completely gone, but it was better."
Dr Beverley Collett, president of the British Pain
Society, said: "In some ways, this supports some of what we are already
doing in pain treatment, using cognitive therapy to change how people
think about their pain.
"And we know psychological treatments do help people manage their pain."