Looking for a simple way to raise your pain threshold? Grab a bottle of ibuprofen … and then put it back down, unopened.
Newly published research suggests your brain will do the rest.
A study that builds upon seminal research from a decade ago “demonstrates that objects in the environment can nonconsciously decrease pain sensitivity,” according to psychologists Abraham Rutchick of California State University, Northridge and Michael Slepian of Stanford University.
This understanding could eventually lead to “efficient clinical interventions,” they write in the online journal PLOS One.
How much pain one can tolerate is a crucial issue for people who are living with a chronic ailment and concerned about the cost and/or side effects of pain-relief medications. This new research, which expands upon a 2002 study, suggests mere exposure—never mind actually taking it—to a product that promises relief can have a surprisingly positive effect.
Rutchick and Slepian’s study featured 54 undergraduates (91 percent of whom were women). Each began by participating in a “cold pressor test.” After immersing their left hand in room-temperature water for two minutes, they then put it in a cold circulating bath (the temperature of which was just above freezing). They were instructed to keep it there until “the pain became too uncomfortable.”
Immediately afterwards, during a “recovery period,” they were told that they would complete another study, ostensibly for another set of researchers, evaluating the design of several products. All examined a water bottle and a stapler. In addition, half looked over a bottle of ibuprofen (the pain reliever in Advil and Motrin), while the other half checked out a container of microwavable noodles.
Afterwards, everyone completed a second round of the freezing-water test.
The results: After their initial tolerance levels were factored in, “Participants who examined ibuprofen reported experiencing less intense pain in the second cold pressor test than those who examined noodles,” the researchers report.
Ten of the 25 participants who examined the ibuprofen bottle—40 percent—felt less pain during the test than the first, compared to only 3 of the 29 of those who checked out the noodles (10.3 percent).
The researchers are unsure what specific mechanism led to the increased tolerance levels. It appears that, in one way or another, seeing or touching the bottle of pills implanted the notion of pain relief.
Rutchick and Slepian caution that their study subjects were healthy undergraduates, not senior citizens suffering from, say, arthritis. They concede it’s uncertain whether the same results will be found in people whose pain arises from “natural contexts.”
Still, given its cost (zero) and toxicity (also zero), it’d be foolish not to look further into this potential way of reducing pain. According to several studies, exposure to words or images associated with alcohol can increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors. Cues in the environment can be surprisingly powerful—and in this case, they may provide welcome relief.