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Love Trumps Pain

Though some say love hurts, it actually helps the body feel less pain.

Contrary to the saying that love hurts, according to a recent study from Stanford University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, it actually helps the body feel less pain. How did such a discovery come to light?

You could say it began with a love story between two seemingly opposite areas of study: love and pain.

Arthur Aron, social psychologist, SUNY Stony Brook, has been a “love researcher” for nearly 30 years; five years ago, he befriended Dr. Sean Mackey, chief, pain management division, Stanford University School of Medicine, at a neurology conference. The two hit it off quickly, Aron states, and discussed what brain pathways each studied. When they realized they were talking about the same pathways, they decided to study the interaction between love and pain.

In July 2007, the two researchers started recruiting Stanford undergraduates for their study. The eight female and seven male students selected were subjected to “a very intense, acute pain experience,” said Jarred Younger, assistant professor, Stanford, who conducted the study while a postdoctoral researcher in Mackey’s lab.

To trigger pain, the scientists placed a heated probe on each subject’s hand and slowly increased the heat until the pain became unendurable. Students rated their pain on a scale of zero to 10, with zero being “no pain at all,” and 10 being “the worst pain imaginable.”

The researchers then generated pain levels of zero, four, and seven while students lay inside a brain scanner viewing either a picture of their significant other or of someone they felt an equal level of attraction to.

According to the results, students felt a lot less pain when they stared at their partner’s picture. Further, the more time students reported thinking about their partners, the greater their pain relief. Students who spent more than half of the day thinking of their significant others experienced three times more pain relief than other participants, Younger said.

During the study, it was noted that love affected the same brain pathway as several strong painkillers and addictive drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Studying the effect of love on these pathways might not only tell researchers more about love, but it could also help researchers find ways to treat both pain and addiction. Further, it could prove a very significant way to help develop pain medication with fewer side-effects, find behavioral methods to treat pain, and help researchers develop a better understanding of relationships.

“It was nice connecting of the dots between what we understand of the neural systems of love and what we understand of the neural systems of pain,” said Dr. Sean Mackey.

Adapted from material provided by the Santa Cruz Sentinel