A single traumatic experience can set off many different levels of pain, whether emotional or physical, acute or chronic.
But can PTSD affect how the brain processes pain?
Marla Mickleborough, MA, of the University of British Columbia and Judith Daniels, PhD, of the University of Western Ontario, wanted to find out whether the brain might actually mitigate pain in the presence of trauma.
They gathered an experimental group of patients with PTSD and a control group of people who had experienced trauma but had never developed PTSD.
Researchers placed the subjects in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner while having them listen to either an emotionally neutral or trauma-related script.
After subjects heard the script, researchers administered either a warm, non-painful stimulus, or a hot, painful stimulus and had subjects rate the pain and unpleasantness.
And what they found seems counterintuitive.
After listening to the trauma-related script, the PTSD group rated the painful stimulus as significantly less intense and less unpleasant than did the control.
Next, researchers analyzed the brain data. They found that the PTSD group had greater activation in regions of the brain associated with pain relief including the caudate, insula, and thalamus.
In fact, the more PTSD symptoms a subject had, the stronger these signals were.
These subjects’ brains appeared to be minimizing pain signals after being exposed to traumatic script-driven imagery. Researchers also found that the more dissociative traits a subject displayed, the less activation there was in emotion processing centers like the amygdala.
Of course we need to be cautious about generalizing these results across all types of trauma – for instance, the two groups were not matched for traumatic experiences or gender.
But because these findings give us a better understanding of what can happen inside the brain of someone with PTSD, they could lead to more targeted interventions for trauma treatment.
If you’d like to see the full study, this paper was published in Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, volume 36.
How have you helped a patient deal with emotional or physical pain stemming from trauma? Please share a comment below.