Know your movements: poorer proprioceptive accuracy is associated with overprotective avoidance behavior

Kristof Vandael, Alexandra Vasilache, Ann Meulders*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Pain-related avoidance of movements that are actually safe (i.e., overprotective behavior) plays a key role in chronic pain disability. Avoidance is reinforced through operant learning: after learning that a certain movement elicits pain, movements that prevent pain are more likely to be performed. Proprioceptive accuracy importantly contributes to motor learning and memory. Interestingly, reduced accuracy has been documented in various chronic pain conditions, prompting the question whether this relates to avoidance becoming excessive. Using robotic arm-reaching movements, we tested the hypothesis that poor proprioceptive accuracy is associated with excessive pain-related avoidance in pain-free participants. Participants first performed a task to assess proprioceptive accuracy, followed by an operant avoidance training during which a pain stimulus was presented when they performed one movement trajectory, but not when they performed another trajectory. During a test phase, movements were no longer restricted to two trajectories, but participants were instructed to avoid pain. Unbeknownst to the participants, the pain stimulus was never presented during this phase. Results supported our hypothesis. Furthermore, exploratory analyses indicated a reduction in proprioceptive accuracy after avoidance learning, which was associated with excessive avoidance and higher trait fear of pain. Perspective: This study is the first to show that poorer proprioceptive accuracy is associated with excessive pain-related avoidance. This finding is especially relevant for chronic pain conditions, as reduced accuracy has been documented in these populations, and points toward the need for research on training accuracy to tackle excessive avoidance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1400-1409
Number of pages10
JournalThe Journal of Pain
Issue number8
Early online date24 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022

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