Interpretation bias in the face of pain: a discriminatory fear conditioning approach

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Abstract

Background and aims: Interpreting pain- and illness-related stimuli as health-threatening is common among chronic pain patients but also occurs in the general population. As interpretation bias (IB) may affect pain perception and might even play part in the development and maintenance of chronic pain, it is important to improve our understanding of this concept. Several studies suggest an association between IB and pain- related anxiety. However, those studies often rely on verbal and pictorial IB tasks that do not entail a threat of actual pain, therefore lacking personal relevance for healthy participants. The current study investigated whether healthy individuals show an IB towards ambiguous health-related stimuli in a context of actual pain threat, and explored whether this bias is associated to pain anxiety constructs.
Methods: Thirty-six healthy participants were conditioned to expect painful electrocutaneous shocks (unconditioned stimulus - US) after health-threat words (CS+) but not after neutral (non-health-threat) words (CS-) in order to establish fear of pain. Subsequently, they completed a verbal interpretation task that contained new CS+ and CS- stimuli as well as ambiguous non-reinforced health-threat and non-health-threat words. IB was assessed through shock expectancy ratings and startle responses to ambiguous and evident health threatening or neutral word stimuli. Pain-related anxiety was measured with validated questionnaires.
Results: The results show a general IB towards ambiguous health-related words on pain expectancies but not on startle response. An exploratory analysis suggests that this effect exists irrespective of pain-related anxiety levels which however may be due to a lack of power.
Conclusion: We present a novel experimental paradigm employing actual health threat that captures IB towards health-related stimuli in healthy individuals. Taken together, results provide evidence for the further consideration of IB as a latent vulnerability factor in the onset and maintenance of pain chronicity. In contrast to previous studies employing a safe, pain-free context, we found that healthy participants show an IB towards ambiguous health-related stimuli, when confronted with pain threat.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)383-395
Number of pages13
JournalSCANDINAVIAN JOURNAL OF PAIN
Volume19
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019

Keywords

  • interpretation bias
  • pain threat
  • acute pain
  • startle response
  • pain expectancy
  • ILLNESS/INJURY SENSITIVITY INDEX
  • NEGATIVE INTERPRETATION BIAS
  • ANXIETY SENSITIVITY
  • INJURY/ILLNESS SENSITIVITY
  • CATASTROPHIZING SCALE
  • ATTENTIONAL BIAS
  • QUESTIONNAIRE
  • THREAT
  • ACQUISITION
  • MODEL

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