Forget Advil, scientists say try doing this the next time you feel pain

The next time you stub your toe and feel a wave of pain coming on, try counting down by sets of seven. It sounds silly at first, but doing so just might help soothe the pain.

That’s the main conclusion of a new study just released by the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the University of Oxford focusing on intervention strategies to mitigate physical pain sensations.

Just like pretty much everything else that takes place within the human body, our minds dictate feelings of perceived physical pain. When something painful happens, like placing your hand on a hot stove, for example, it’s up to the brain to receive, interpret, contextualize (emotional and cognitive factors), and then ultimately react to those sensations.

Consciously, this all happens in a split second, but within that moment the human mind collaborates and exchanges information across multiple brain regions.

This has been confirmed in recent studies that noted a direct relationship between participant perceptions of pain and neural activity levels in several brain areas. But, those prior projects had focused on amplifying pain, either via ramping up emotional triggers or flat out asking participants to focus or ruminate on the pain. 

This time around, the research team set out to assess how pain-mitigation strategies influence neural activity during painful moments.

To accomplish this, 20 study participants were gathered together and exposed to a “painful cold stimulus.” Before actually being exposed, each person was told to try out one of three different pain relief strategies.

The first approach was to count down from 1,000 by intervals of seven (993, 986, and so on). The second was to simply focus on something pleasant or beautiful, and the third strategy was to continually tell oneself that the pain “really isn’t that bad.”

In addition to all that each subject was also hooked up to an MRI machine that kept track of neural activity patterns in their brains.

Afterward, each participant was asked to rate the intensity of the pain they felt on a scale of 0 to 100. Subsequent responses showed that the count down approach helped relieve pain more than the other two strategies.

“This task obviously requires such a high level of concentration that it distracts the subject’s attention significantly from the sensation of pain. In fact, some of our subjects managed to reduce the perceived intensity of pain by 50%,” explains LMU neuroscientist & study co-author Enrico Schulz in a university release. “One participant later reported that she had successfully adopted the strategy during the most painful phase of childbirth.”

So, it appears that focusing one’s attention on counting down distracts the brain somewhat from the painful sensations it’s receiving – by activating different neural areas.

Professor Shulz had conducted a similar study in 2019 that collected evidence indicating all three of the aforementioned pain mitigation strategies are capable of at least somewhat reducing feelings of perceived pain. That prior project also discovered that each of those three approaches appears to activate a different “pattern of neural activity.”

For this most recent round of research, Schulz and his team made it a priority to take a closer look at the MRI results and interconnections between brain areas. However, their findings were ultimately the same as the earlier study.

“Our aim was to determine which areas in the brain must work together in order to successfully reduce the perceived intensity of the pain,” Schulz comments. “Interestingly, no single region or network that is activated by all three strategies could be identified. Instead, under each experimental condition, neural circuits in different brain regions act in concert to varying extents.”

Regarding the count down approach, close collaboration between the right and left side of the insular cortex appears to facilitate pain relief. In comparison, pain relief through recalling or imagining pleasant images/memories seems to only be possible if an intensive exchange of information takes place between the frontal lobes.

That’s a notable distinction, researchers say, because the frontal lobes are known as integral neural control centers. With this in mind, they theorize that recalling comforting images doesn’t work as efficiently at relieving pain because it requires more mental energy. The mind must search through multiple “compartments,” or memories, to settle on a pleasing image, while counting down is a more straightforward task.

Besides coming in handy on your next trip to the dentist, these discoveries may one day help produce more effective pain management strategies for people living with chronic pain. The research team is already planning further experiments to that end.

The full study can be found here, published in eLife.