Pain can be contagious

May 8, 2013
Dr Giummarra has developed a new tool to characterise the reactions people have to pain in others. Credit: iStock

(Medical Xpress)—The pain sensations of others can be felt by some people, just by witnessing their agony, according to new research.

A Monash University study into the phenomenon known as somatic contagion found almost one in three people could feel pain when they see others experience pain. It identified two groups of people that were prone to this response - those who acquire it following trauma, injury such as or , and those with the condition present at birth, known as the congenital variant.

Presenting her findings at the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists' annual scientific meeting in Melbourne earlier this week, Dr Melita Giummarra, from the School of Psychology and Psychiatry, said in some cases people suffered severe in response to another person's pain.

"My research is now beginning to differentiate between at least these two unique profiles of somatic contagion," Dr Giummarra said.

"While the congenital variant appears to involve a blurring of the boundary between self and other, with heightened empathy, acquired somatic contagion involves reduced empathic concern for others, but increased personal distress.

"This suggests that the pain triggered corresponds to a focus on their own rather than that of others."

Most people experience emotional discomfort when they witness pain in another person and neuroimaging studies have shown that this is linked to activation in the that are also involved in the of pain.

Dr Giummarra said for some people the pain they 'absorb' mirrors the location and site of the pain in another they are witnessing and is generally localised.

"We know that the same regions of the brain are activated for these groups of people as when they experience their own pain. First in emotional regions but then there is also sensory activation. It is a vicarious – it literally triggers their pain, Dr Giummarra said"

Dr Giummarra has developed a new tool to characterise the reactions people have to pain in others that is also sensitive to somatic contagion – the for Pain Scale.

Explore further: Painful periods increase sensitivity to pain throughout the month

Related Stories

Broken hearts really hurt

February 22, 2012

"Broken-hearted" isn't just a metaphor -- social pain and physical pain have a lot in common, according to Naomi Eisenberger of the University of Califiornia-Los Angeles, the author of a new paper published in Current Directions ...

Recommended for you

Serious research into what makes us laugh

November 24, 2015

More complex jokes tend to be funnier but only up to a point, Oxford researchers have found. Jokes that are too complicated tend to lose the audience.

Psychologists dispute continuum theory of sexual orientation

November 19, 2015

Washington State University researchers have established a categorical distinction between people who are heterosexual and those who are not. By analyzing the reported sexual behavior, identity and attraction of more than ...

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

November 18, 2015

Human infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age, a new study by psychologists at Emory University and Bucknell finds. The journal Developmental Science is publishing the research, showing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.