Acute stress does not affect pain sensitivity, but it significantly reduces conditioned pain modulation and increases pain temporal summation, in a manner related to the magnitude of perceived stress.
Anecdotes on the ability of individuals to continue to function under stressful conditions despite injuries causing excruciating pain suggest that acute stress may induce analgesia. However, studies exploring the effect of acute experimental stress on pain perception show inconsistent results, possibly due to methodological differences. Our aim was to systematically study the effect of acute stress on pain perception using static and dynamic, state-of-the-art pain measurements. Participants were 29 healthy men who underwent the measurement of heat-pain threshold, heat-pain intolerance, temporal summation of pain, and conditioned pain modulation (CPM). Testing was conducted before and during exposure to the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST), inducing acute psychosocial stress. Stress levels were evaluated using perceived ratings of stress and anxiety, autonomic variables, and salivary cortisol. The MIST induced a significant stress reaction. Although pain threshold and pain intolerance were unaffected by stress, an increase in temporal summation of pain and a decrease in CPM were observed. These changes were significantly more robust among individuals with stronger reaction to stress (“high responders”), with a significant correlation between the perception of stress and the performance in the pain measurements. We conclude that acute psychosocial stress seems not to affect the sensitivity to pain, however, it significantly reduces the ability to modulate pain in a dose–response manner. Considering the diverse effects of stress in this and other studies, it appears that the type of stress and the magnitude of its appraisal determine its interactions with the pain system.