HealthDay News — Patients who experienced pain in a sad emotional context vs. a neutral or happy context, reported higher pain intensity scores and had greater pain-evoked cortical activity in the brain, results from a small study show.

“These results suggest that observing sad emotion can modulate both subjective sensitivity and neural activity, and that emotional context is an important factor for understanding pain in human beings,” Atsuo Yoshino, MD, of Hiroshima University in Japan, and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Pain.

Previous psychological studies have shown that emotions can affect a person’s subjective pain threshold. To study this phenomenon further, Yoshino and colleagues used magnetoencephalography to evaluate pain experienced when participants were exposed to sad, happy and neutral emotional contexts as presented by facial stimuli.

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The study included 19 healthy individuals, aged 20 to 30 years. Participants self-rated their pain intensity, and researchers measured cortical beta rhythms using a 306-channel neuromagnetometer.

They foun that subjective pain ratings were higher in the sad emotional context compared with happy or neutral contexts. Furthermore, when patients were exposed to pain in a sad emotional context, cortical beta rhythms corresponded with larger event-related desynchronization of lower beta bands in the right hemisphere of patients’ brains than with pain experienced in happy emotional context.

“In conclusion, our results provide evidence that people tend to show higher pain sensitivities when they are feeling sad, and that the cortical oscillations (event-related desynchronization/event-related synchronization) in response to pain stimuli are particularly changeable under such conditions,” the researchers wrote.

Yoshino A et al. J Pain. 2012; 13(7): 628-635.