Activity interruptions by pain impair activity resumption, but not more than activity interruptions by other stimuli: An experimental investigation

Rena Gatzounis*, Martien G S Schrooten, Geert Crombez, Johan W S Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

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Interrupting ongoing activities whilst intending to resume them later is a natural response to pain. Whereas this response facilitates pain management, at the same time it may also disrupt task performance. Previous research has shown that activity interruptions by pain impair subsequent resumption of the activity, but not more than pain-irrelevant interruptions. Ongoing task complexity and pain threat value might influence interruption effects. In this experiment, we adjusted a paradigm from outside the field of pain to investigate how activity interruptions by pain affect task performance. Healthy participants (n=69) were required to answer a series of questions, in a specific sequence, about presented letter-digit combinations. This ongoing task was occasionally interrupted by painful electrocutaneous or non-painful vibrotactile stimulation (between-subjects) followed by a typing task. Upon interruption completion, participants were required to resume the ongoing task at the next step of the question sequence. Results indicate impaired sequence accuracy (less frequent resumption at the correct step of the sequence) but preserved non-sequence accuracy (similarly frequent correct responses to question content) immediately after an interruption. Effects were not larger for interruptions by pain, compared to non-pain. Further, participants in the two conditions reported similar task experience, namely task motivation, perceived difficulty, and confidence to resume the interrupted task. Pain catastrophizing did not influence the results. As in previous studies, activity interruptions by pain were shown to impair the resumption of a task that requires keeping to a step sequence, but not more than interruptions by non-painful stimuli. Potential explanations are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)351-358
Number of pages8
Issue number2
Early online date29 Sept 2017
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018


  • Pain
  • (Activity) interruption
  • Task performance
  • Task switch
  • Vibrotactile stimulus
  • TASK

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