Alike, but not quite: Comparing the generalization of pain-related fear and pain-related avoidance

Eveliina Glogan, Michel Meulders, Leon Pfeiffer, Johan W.S. Vlaeyen, Ann Meulders*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Web of Science)


Pain-related fear and -avoidance crucially contribute to pain chronification. People with chronic pain may adopt costly avoidance strategies above and beyond what is necessary, aligning with experimental findings of excessive fear generalization to safe movements in these populations. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that, when avoidance is costly, it can dissociate from fear. Here, we investigated whether concurrently measured pain-related fear and costly avoidance generalization correspond in one task. We also explored whether healthy participants avoid excessively despite associated costs, and if avoidance would decrease as a function of dissimilarity from a pain -associated movement. In a robotic arm-reaching task, participants could avoid a low-cost, pain-associated movement trajectory (T+), by choosing a high-cost non-painful movement trajectory (T-), at opposite ends of a movement plane. Subsequently, in the absence of pain, we introduced three movement trajectories (G1-3) between T+ and T-, and one movement trajectory on the side of T-opposite to T+ (G4), linearly increasing in costs from T+ to G4. Avoidance was operationalized as maximal deviation from T+, and as trajectory choice. Fear learning was measured using self-reported pain-expectancy, pain-related fear, and startle eye-blink electromyography. Self-reports generalized, both decreasing with increasing distance from T+. In contrast, all generalization trajectories were chosen equally, suggesting that avoidance-costs and previous pain balanced each other out. No effects emerged in the electromyography. These results add to a growing body of literature showing that (pain-related) avoidance, especially when costly, can dissociate from fear, calling for a better under-standing of the factors motivating, and mitigating, disabling avoidance. Perspective: This article presents a comparison of pain-related fear- and avoidance generalization, and an exploration of excessive avoidance in healthy participants. Our findings show that pain -related avoidance can dissociate from fear, especially when avoidance is costly, calling for a better understanding of the factors motivating and mitigating disabling avoidance. (C) 2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Inc. on behalf of United States Association for the Study of Pain, Inc.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1616-1628
Number of pages13
JournalThe Journal of Pain
Issue number9
Early online date1 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022

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