Taking a break in response to pain: An experimental investigation of the effects of interruptions by pain on subsequent activity resumption

Irene (Rena) Gatzounis*, Martien G S Schrooten, Geert Crombez, Linda M G Vancleef, Johan W S Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Interrupting ongoing activities with the intention to resume them again later is a natural response to pain. However, such interruptions might have negative consequences for the subsequent resumption and performance of the interrupted activity. Activity interruptions by pain may be more impairing than interruptions by non-painful stimuli, and also be subjectively experienced as such. These effects might be more pronounced in people high in pain catastrophizing. These hypotheses were investigated in two experiments.

METHODS: In Experiment 1, healthy volunteers (n=24) performed an ongoing task requiring a sequence of joystick movements. Occasionally, they received either a painful electrocutaneous or a non-painful vibrotactile stimulus, followed by suspension of the ongoing task and temporary engagement in a different task (interruption task). After performing the interruption task for 30s, participants resumed the ongoing task. As the ongoing task of Experiment 1 was rather simple, Experiment 2 (n=30) included a modified, somewhat more complex version of the task, in order to examine the effects of activity interruptions by pain.

RESULTS: Participants made more errors and were slower to initiate movements (Experiment 1 & 2) and to complete movements (Experiment 2) when they resumed the ongoing task after an interruption, indicating that interruptions impaired subsequent performance. However, these impairments were not larger when the interruption was prompted by painful than by non-painful stimulation. Pain catastrophizing did not influence the results.

CONCLUSIONS: Results indicate that activity interruptions by pain have negative consequences for the performance of an activity upon its resumption, but not more so than interruptions by non-painful stimuli. Potential explanations and avenues for future research are discussed.

IMPLICATIONS: Interrupting ongoing activities is a common response to pain. In two experiments using a novel paradigm we showed that activity interruptions by pain impair subsequent activity resumption and performance. However, this effect seems to not be specific to pain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-60
Number of pages9
JournalScandinavian Journal of Pain
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017


  • Activity interruption
  • Task interruption (chronic) Pain
  • Task performance
  • Task resumption
  • Task switch


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