As science continues to unravel the mysteries of ourselves and the world around us at a furious pace, it can sometimes feel like the boffins are proving things that many of us feel we already know or take for granted. This interesting example comes from the Stanford University School of Medicine, where scientists have found that intense feelings of love are as effective at relieving pain as painkillers or even illicit drugs.

The last few decades have shown us that pain is not simply a symptom of trauma, but is a discreet disease entity in its own right that can affect the entire nervous system. Advances in neuro-imaging have allowed scientists a better look at the areas in which pain is processed, how the brain is affected and how it changes our thoughts and emotions, in an effort to create a multi-disciplinary treatment for pain.

Neuroimaging was able to link the activation of reward systems in the brain with the feelings of euphoria and contentment that are often distinguished by the early stages of a relationship. With Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) they found that the area of the brain that processes pain and the area of the brain that is involved in reward-processing are situated close together. Close neurological ties between the two areas meant activation of the reward-processing area could affect the pain-processing area.

Stanford study

Fifteen lovesick individuals were tested in the first nine months of their relationship. They were subjected to moderate and high thermal pain, and shown pictures of their partner, pictures of another attractive and familiar friend, and underwent a word-association task designed to be distracting. Both the partner pictures and distraction technique reported a significant reduction in pain, or analgesia, and only the partner pictures activated the brain's reward-processing areas; the caudate head, nucleus accumbens, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The study suggests that neural activation of the reward-processing areas via non-pharmacological means could be a powerful action on the pain experience, and could help future work with pain management in humans.

"When people are in this passionate, all-consuming phase of love, there are significant alterations in their mood that are impacting their experience of pain," said Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Pain Management, associate professor of anesthesia and senior author of the study. "We're beginning to tease apart some of these reward systems in the brain and how they influence pain. These are very deep, old systems in our brain that involve dopamine — a primary neurotransmitter that influences mood, reward and motivation."

Other studies running concurrently are using brain imaging to train patients to control the experience of pain; to identify the changes in the brain experienced during chronic pain that amplify the pain experience, and how to reverse them; to examine distraction techniques as a viable method of pain management; to study pain-processing via the spinal cord; the use of neurotoxins as a novel method of pain management; the use of intravenous lidocaine as an effective pain relief; the pain experience and contributing factors; and sensitization to pain following repeated use of opiates.

The study was published online in PLoS ONE.