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Activity interruptions by pain impair activity resumption, but not more than activity interruptions by other stimuli

an experimental investigation

Gatzounis, Renaa,b,*; Schrooten, Martien G.S.a,c; Crombez, Geertd; Vlaeyen, Johan W.S.a,b

doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001079
Research Paper

Interrupting ongoing activities whilst intending to resume them later is a natural response to pain. Whereas this response facilitates pain management, at the same time it may also disrupt task performance. Previous research has shown that activity interruptions by pain impair subsequent resumption of the activity, but not more than pain-irrelevant interruptions. Ongoing task complexity and pain threat value might influence interruption effects. In this experiment, we adjusted a paradigm from outside the field of pain to investigate how activity interruptions by pain affect task performance. Healthy participants (n = 69) were required to answer a series of questions, in a specific sequence, about presented letter-digit combinations. This ongoing task was occasionally interrupted by painful electrocutaneous or nonpainful vibrotactile stimulation (between-subjects), followed by a typing task. On interruption completion, participants were required to resume the ongoing task at the next step of the question sequence. Results indicate impaired sequence accuracy (less frequent resumption at the correct step of the sequence) but preserved nonsequence accuracy (similarly frequent correct responses to question content) immediately after an interruption. Effects were not larger for interruptions by pain compared with nonpain. Furthermore, participants in the 2 conditions reported similar task experience, namely task motivation, perceived difficulty, and confidence to resume the interrupted task. Pain catastrophizing did not influence the results. As in previous studies, activity interruptions by pain were shown to impair the resumption of a task that requires keeping to a step sequence, but not more than interruptions by nonpainful stimuli. Potential explanations are discussed.

Activity interruptions by pain impair resumption of a sequential task, but not more so than interruptions by nonpainful stimuli.

aFaculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

bDepartment of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, the Netherlands

cSchool of Law, Psychology and Social Work, Centre for Health and Medical Psychology, Örebro University, Örebro, Sweden

dDepartment of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

Corresponding author. Address: Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, Box 3726, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium. Tel.: +32 16 37 30 40; fax: +32 16 3 26144. E-mail address: (R. Gatzounis).

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

Received July 02, 2017

Received in revised form September 12, 2017

Accepted September 21, 2017

© 2018 International Association for the Study of Pain
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