Empathy and catastrophising influence pain inhibition

When I went to occupational therapy school I was introduced to nociception and the biological underpinnings of pain. I wasn’t, at that time, taught anything about the brain, attention, emotions or any social responses to pain behaviour. Like most health professionals educated in the early 1980’s, pain was a biological and physical phenomenon. I suppose that’s why it can be so hard for some of my colleagues to unlearn the things they learned way back then, and begin to integrate what we know about psychological and social aspects of our pain experience. Because pain is a truly biopsychosocial experience. Those pesky psychosocial factors aren’t just present in people who have difficulty recovering from pain, they’re actually integral to the entire experience.

Anyway, ’nuff said.

Today I stumbled across a cool study exploring two of the psychosocial phenomena that we’ve learned are involved in pain. The first is catastrophising. And if you haven’t got your head around catastrophising it’s probably time to do so. It’s one of the strongest predictors of disability (Edwards, Dworkin, Sullivan, Turk & Wasan, 2016). Catastrophising is the tendency to “think the worst” and consists of ruminating (brooding on), magnifying (over-estimating the negative impact) and helplessness (feeling as if there’s nothing you can do).  The second is empathy, or the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Empathy is not the same as sympathy which seems to be about the emotions a person experiences while observing another’s emotional state. In fact, separate parts of the brain are involved in the two experiences (Cuff, Brown, Taylor & Howat, 2014).

Back to the study. This study examined conditioned pain modulation in partners observing their partner undergoing a painful experience. It was carried out by Gougeon, Gaumond, Goffaux, Potvin and Marchand (2016) in an attempt to understand what happens to the pain experience of people watching their loved ones in pain. The experimental protocol was (1) baseline; (2) assessing pain VAS 50; (3) pre-CPT heat pain testing (thermode preimmersion at a fixed temperature); (4) CPT (either at 201Cor71C); and (5) post-CPT heat testing (thermode postimmersion at the same fixed temperature). What they did was ask the participants to submerge their right hand in a freezing cold waterbath while video recording them. They then asked their partners to place their right hand in lukewarm water while watching the video recording. Participants were asked to rate their pain intensity.

What they found was the higher the catastrophizing score was, stronger was their descending pain inhibition when they were watching either themselves or their spouse in pain. In women, the more empathic the women were, the better was their descending pain inhibition when they observed their spouse in pain.

This is extraordinary. Firstly, the finding that there was a correlation between catastrophising score and descending inhibition contradicts other research studies – Gougeon, Gaumond, Goffaux, Potvin and Marchand suggest that although cognitive and emotional processes underlying catastrophising increase pain perception and decrease inhibition, their experimental design may have increased pain perception during the conditioned stimulus which may have triggered more conditioned pain modulation. They also suggest that the catastrophising level of participants increases their perceived pain, explaining why it correlates with conditioned pain modulation efficiency.

Secondly, women were more distraught than men by observing pain in others. Adopting the perspective of a loved-one elicited stronger activation in regions involved in the “pain” matrix than adopting the stranger’s perspective (Cheng et al), and the authors suggest that empathy is a powerful factor involved in pain modulation while observing someone in pain. This shows that descending inhibition is influenced by physical stimulus characteristics (such as intensity or location), as well as personal cognitive dimensions. A far cry from the notion that psychosocial factors play little part in modulating our pain experience.

What does this actually mean for us?

Well, to me it suggests that we need to be aware of our own empathic response to observing someone else who is experiencing pain. Let’s put it this way: if I’m an especially empathic person (and especially if I tend to catastrophise) and I see people who are experiencing pain in my clinical practice, my own emotional and cognitive response to seeing people may influence my behaviour and practice. For example, I might be less willing to tell people that I don’t have a way to reduce their pain. I might pursue more “heroic” healthcare – send people off for more treatments, try for longer with unsuccessful treatments “just in case”, I might even send people away from my care because I find it hard to tolerate being around someone who “doesn’t respond”.

You see, being empathic and catastrophising tends to elevate feelings of distress in the presence of pain. If we don’t have effective ways to manage our own distress when we are in the presence of someone who is indicating they’re sore, we’re at greater risk of developing burnout and of feeling frustrated (Gleichgerrcht & Decety, 2014).

For this reason I’m a fan of using mindfulness because it does help people to step back from the emotional judgements of experience, and in particular the negative impact such judgements have on both interactions and emotions (Dobkin, Bernardi & Bagnis, 2016).


Cheng Y, Chen C, Lin CP, et al. Love hurts: an fMRI study. Neuroimage. 2010;51:923–929.

Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2014). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144-153. doi:10.1177/1754073914558466

Decety, J., Yang, C.-Y., & Cheng, Y. (2010). Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: An event-related brain potential study. Neuroimage, 50(4), 1676-1682.

Dobkin, P. L., Bernardi, N. F., & Bagnis, C. I. (2016). Enhancing clinicians’ well-being and patient-centered care through mindfulness. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 36(1), 11-16.

Edwards, R. R., Dworkin, R. H., Sullivan, M. D., Turk, D. C., & Wasan, A. D. (2016). The role of psychosocial processes in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 17(9, Suppl), T70-T92.

Gleichgerrcht, E., & Decety, J. (2014). The relationship between different facets of empathy, pain perception and compassion fatigue among physicians. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 8, 243.

Gougeon, V. M., Gaumond, I. P., Goffaux, P. P., Potvin, S. P., & Marchand, S. P. (2016). Triggering descending pain inhibition by observing ourselves or a loved-one in pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(3), 238-245.


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