A new study indicates that distraction is as effective a tool in reducing pain in patients with fibromyalgia as it is in healthy people, which is contrary to previous research.
The study, “Task interference and distraction efficacy in patients with fibromyalgia: an experimental investigation,” was published in the journal Pain.
Pain can interfere significantly with daily tasks, and while that is unintentional, pain can, to some extent, be controlled. Some studies have shown that various techniques such as directing attention away from pain by engaging in an unrelated task may actually reduce pain and related distress.
Only a few studies have assessed both tasks and distractions and their effects on pain. Also, studies have suggested that patients with fibromyalgia have a decreased ability to control pain compared to healthy individuals.
Now, researchers sought to investigate whether the interference of pain while doing tasks (called task interference) and the ability to distract oneself from pain (called distraction efficacy) were different between fibromyalgia patients and a matched healthy control group.
Researchers recruited 49 fibromyalgia patients and 49 healthy volunteers and instructed them to perform two tasks as quickly as possible.
The first task was a visual localization task. Participants had to locate a black square on a screen that measured 1 cm-by-1 cm in the presence of non-painful vibrating, or painful electrical stimuli. This was designated as the distraction task.
The second task was a somatosensory localization task, which involved determining whether the non-painful or painful stimuli was closer to the left (near the elbow) or right (near the wrist) on the left arm. In this task, participants were instructed to focus their attention on the pain stimuli and not be distracted.
Afterward, participants reported their experience of the stimuli during both localization tasks.
Results indicated that pain interferes with the performance of the visual task in both fibromyalgia patients and healthy individuals. They also showed that the interference effect increases with the intensity of the pain stimulus.
In line with other studies, all participants experienced the pain stimulus as less intense when directing attention away from the pain, such as when performing a visual task, than when focusing on the pain.
Overall, the task performance of fibromyalgia patients was slower compared to the task performance in the healthy control group. However, the interference effect of low and moderately intense pain stimuli did not differ from the interference effect in healthy controls which “challenges the idea that painful stimuli more easily demand attention in FM patients than in healthy people.”
The ability of distraction to divert attention from pain (distraction efficacy) was also not significantly different between the two groups.
While this current study provides support for theories that claim that attention downplays the experience of pain, there was no evidence to suggest fibromyalgia patients experience different task interference or distraction efficacy effects.
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