When it comes to pain, everything matters.

Minutes to read

Let’s step back a long time, a very long time and introduce you to René Descartes, a French scientist and philosopher who in the 1600’s theorized that the body was more similar to a machine, and that pain was a disturbance that passed down along nerve fibres until the disturbance reached the brain.

We’ve moved on from this understanding of pain, so let’s introduce you to a few funky experiments that show us that when it comes to pain, EVERYTHING matters!

Would you think a visual cue could influence a painful experience? It most certainly can, as Moseley & Arntz. (2007) beautifully demonstrated. The experiment: a -20 degree Celsius probe was applied to the back of the hand of 33 individuals for 500ms, this was paired with either a blue or red light, if like Descartes hypothesised pain was a direct readout of sensory input then the colour paired with the stimulus wouldn’t change the individuals reported pain (VAS).

But it does, and in a BIG way! When individuals received the cold stimulus to the back of their hand paired with the blue light, they reported on average ~3 points lower on a 10-point scale than when they received the cold stimulus with the red light. The difference being the contextual cue, as red is perceived as hot and dangerous and blue perceived as cool and not dangerous.

Here’s a cool one! Bayer et al., (1998) recruited sixty-two subjects to participate in their sham head stimulator trial. This experiment placed a “sham head stimulator” which looked a little like those salon hairdryers with a box attached to it along with a dial that could be turned up to 50 over the heads of the healthy subjects.

The “sham head stimulator” was doing absolutely nothing, but as the investigators slowly turned up the dial attached, the individuals begun to experience greater reported pain! Pain without any noxious input at all, again, not possible if pain was a direct read out of tissue damage.

The above graph shows the mean maximal pain rating during sham stimulation for each stimulator setting.

The takeaway from these novel experiments? That when it comes to pain, everything matters!

Next time you find yourself with a random ache or pain, or maybe some chronic pain that has stuck around for a lot longer than you’d like it to, ask yourself is it possible that maybe there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to your pain? This question should provide hope and opportunity for potential new ways to manage your pain moving forward.

If you would like help exploring some of these options, the team at The Biomechanics are always happy to help!



Moseley, L. G., & Arntz, A. (2007). The context of anxious stimulus affects the pain it evokes. PAIN, 133(1), 64-71.doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2007.03.002

Bayer, T. L., Baer, P. E., & Early, C. (1991).Situational and psychophysiological factors in psychologically induced pain. Pain44(1), 45–50.https://doi.org/10.1016/0304-3959(91)90145-N

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