Seeing Pain Can Make You Feel Pain Too


A new study suggests that just watching pain could cause you to experience pain yourself.

It happens mostly for patients suffering from complex regional pain syndrome, a disabling chronic pain disorder in a limb. CRPS patients can feel pain from both their own movements and even from observing other people’s movements can enhance the feeling of pain.

“Our discovery may help to develop diagnostics and therapeutic strategies for CRPS patients,” said Jaakko Hotta, a neurologist and doctoral candidate at Aalto University, in a press release.

Flickr Image Courtesy: Birdies100, CC BY-SA 2.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: Birdies100, CC BY-SA 2.0

Researchers from Aalto University in Finland found that when CRPS patients feel pain caused by observing the movements of another person, their brains display abnormal activation in the same areas that respond to normal physical pain. The pain the patients felt during the movement observation were similar to the ‘normal’ pain associated with tissue damage.

The researchers analyzed functional MRI images from 13 upper-limb CRPS patients and 13 healthy control subjects who were viewing short videos of hand actions, such as a hand squeezing a ball with maximum force. With the CRPS patients, watching the videos was associated with abnormal brain activation patterns.

A pattern-classification analysis differentiated the CRPS patients from the healthy subjects. The findings indicated that CRPS affects brain areas related to both pain processing and motor control. CRPS is also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy.

The study was published in the Journal of Pain, the official journal of the American Pain Society.

Early diagnosis is the key to understanding and treating CRPS, said Helen Small, the executive director of Promoting Awareness of RSD and CRSP in Canada, known as P.A.R.C.

“It’s extremely important that it be diagnosed early so that it can be treated effectively,” Small said to Global News. “If you suspect that you have it, you should get and get it checked out because a lot of doctors don’t know about about it. They don’t know to diagnose and they don’t know how to treat it.”

Small said if the condition is left untreated, there is a higher chance the pain could spread to other parts of the body – causing more problems.

Color the World Orange, an annual event to spread awareness for the pain disorder, held globally on the first Monday of November each year, recently celebrated its third year.

The SkyDance Bridge in Oklahoma City lit orange during Color The World Orange™ 2014. Credit:
The SkyDance Bridge in Oklahoma City lit orange during Color The World Orange™ 2014. Photo/Caption Courtesy:

“Color The World Orange was started in 2014 to bring awareness to a debilitating pain condition that too few people know about or understand,” the Color The World Orange team said in a press release. “We hope this day will allow all those affected by CRPS/RSD to join together and show the world that while we are in pain, we are strong.”

Almost 50 buildings, bridges and other structures around the world were lit orange in support of the event, including fountains in Trafalgar Square in London, the Bank of America Plaza in Dallas and the Niagara Falls Illumination Board in New York.