Classically conditioned modulation of pain depends on stimulus intensity

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Harvie, Daniel S
Poolman, Eva Y
Madden, Victoria J
Olthof, Nick A
Coppieters, Michel W
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Innocuous cues that become associated with pain can enhance pain. This is termed classically conditioned hyperalgesia. The size of this effect varies under different conditions. We aimed to test whether the sensitising effect of pain-associated cues depends on the intensity of the paired test stimulus. To do this, two virtual reality environments were paired with either painful or non-painful vibrotactile stimuli in a counterbalanced fashion. The differential effect of the two environments was evaluated using pain intensity ratings of paired electrocutaneous test stimuli at three different intensity levels. Forty healthy participants were included in the study; 30 participants experienced sufficient pain during the learning phase and were included in the main analysis. An effect of environment (p = 0.014) and interaction between environment and test stimulus intensity was found (p = 0.046). Only the most intense test stimulus was modulated by environment. While the effect was small, the results are consistent with the proposition that pain-associated cues may induce hyperalgesia to some degree, under certain conditions. In particular, results highlight the potential relevance of stimulus intensity during and after the initial painful experience. Further attention is needed to comprehensively understand the variables that impact classically conditioned hyperalgesia.

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Experimental Brain Research

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© The Author(s) 2022. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made.

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Harvie, DS; Poolman, EY; Madden, VJ; Olthof, NA; Coppieters, MW, Classically conditioned modulation of pain depends on stimulus intensity, Experimental Brain Research