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Characteristics of Response to Experimental Pain in Sexually Abused Women

Granot, Michal PhD*,†; Somer, Eli PhD; Zisman-Ilani, Yaara MA§; Beny, Ahuva MD∥,¶; Sadger, Ronit MA; Mirkin, Ronit MA; Moont, Ruth MSc; Yovell, Yoram MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/AJP.0b013e3182132963
Original Articles

Objectives Women with a history of sexual abuse (SA) commonly report greater pain symptoms. It is still unclear whether enhanced pain susceptibility is the result of altered pain processing and response. Therefore, this pilot study aimed to explore pain sensitivity to experimentally induced pain and associated psychology in women with a history of severe SA.

Methods Twenty-one survivors of severe, long-lasting SA and 21 control women underwent experimentally induced heat pain and completed psychological questionnaires. Pain measures included heat pain thresholds, pain intensity ratings, and pain tolerance in response to contact heat, painful stimulation delivered to the volar forearm. Questionnaires included somatization (Brief Symptom Inventory), personality traits including harm avoidance, novelty seeking, and reward dependence (Cloninger tridimensional personality questionnaire), and levels of dissociation (Dissociative Experiences Scale).

Results SA women had elevated heat pain thresholds (45.7±2.2°C vs. 43.9±3.1°C; P=0.042) and higher pain intensity ratings (on a 0 to 100 scale: 80.0±26.6 vs. 51.2±27.7; P=0.001). In addition, they had lower tolerability to painful tonic stimulation, greater somatization, and larger harm avoidance scores. Regression analyses showed that higher pain intensity ratings in SA women associated with greater tendency for harm avoidance but not with levels of dissociation.

Discussion Women with a history of severe SA seem to have a paradoxical pattern of experimental pain response, characterized by both higher pain thresholds and increased pain intensity ratings. This pattern is associated with the personality trait of harm avoidance. Models that might account for these findings are discussed.

*Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences

School of Social Work

§Department of Community Mental Health, Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences

Institute for the Study of Affective Neuroscience, University of Haifa

Multidisciplinary Treatment Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse

Multidisciplinary Treatment Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse and Head of the Psychiatric Unit, Bnaiy-Zion Medical Center

Laboratory of Clinical Neurophysiology, Faculty of Medicine, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Reprints: Michal Granot, PhD, Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa 31905 Israel (e-mail:

Received October 13, 2010

Accepted January 31, 2011

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.