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Attempts to control pain prioritize attention towards signals of pain: An experimental study

Notebaert, Liesa,*; Crombez, Geerta; Vogt, Juliaa; De Houwer, Jana; Van Damme, Stefaana; Theeuwes, Janb

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doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2011.01.020

Clinical evidence suggests that a persistent search for solutions for chronic pain may bring along costs at the cognitive, affective, and behavioral level. Specifically, attempts to control pain may fuel hypervigilance and prioritize attention towards pain-related information. This hypothesis was investigated in an experiment with 41 healthy volunteers. Prioritization of attention towards a signal for pain was measured using an adaptation of a visual search paradigm in which participants had to search for a target presented in a varying number of colored circles. One of these colors (Conditioned Stimulus) became a signal for pain (Unconditioned Stimulus: electrocutaneous stimulus at tolerance level) using a classical conditioning procedure. Intermixed with the visual search task, participants also performed another task. In the pain-control group, participants were informed that correct and fast responses on trials of this second task would result in an avoidance of the Unconditioned Stimulus. In the comparison group, performance on the second task was not instrumental in controlling pain. Results showed that in the pain-control group, attention was more prioritized towards the Conditioned Stimulus than in the comparison group. The theoretical and clinical implications of these results are discussed.

Using a visual search task, we showed that the goal to avoid pain leads to enhanced prioritization of signals of pain.

Sponsorships or competing interests that may be relevant to content are disclosed at the end of this article.

aGhent University, Belgium

bVrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

*Corresponding author. Address: Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Henri Dunantlaan 2, Ghent B-9000, Belgium. Tel.: +32 9 264 91 05; fax: +32 9 264 64 89.


Article history: Received 26 January 2010; Received in revised form 8 November 2010; Accepted 14 January 2011.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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