A new study published in The Journal of Physiology examining how the body responds to the anticipation of pain may help musculoskeletal pain disorders.

Investigating how the brain adapts the body’s movements to help avoid pain when people are injured, the research found that the message from motor brain areas toward a muscle is reduced if this muscle is responsible for producing a painful movement and increased if it the muscle counteracts that movement.

Conducted by Laval University, Quebec, in conjunction with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation and Social Integration, the research involved measuring the link between motor brain areas and the biceps as they prepared to move.

Additionally, it was observed that if the brain knows the movement will cause pain then the reaction time to perform the movement is longer, but the movements are performed quicker, suggesting a strategy of ‘getting it over and done with’.

According to the organisations, when people are injured, they can quickly learn to associate pain to a given movement and change the way the body moves to avoid or minimize pain. Understanding how this occurs in the brain is crucial for identifying the mechanisms that lead to the long-term maintenance of pain.

Catherine Mercier, corresponding author of the study, said: “This discovery is important because it confirms the establishment of protective strategies during the anticipation of acute pain. It marks an important advance to further our understanding of the mechanisms involved in the transition from acute to chronic pain.

“Indeed, a recent theory on the effect of pain on motor control states that while protective strategies may be initially relevant and lead to short-term pain alleviation, they may potentially have detrimental long-term consequences and lead to chronic pain.”

The investigation was carried out on thirty healthy participants, in which half received painful stimulations during flexion movements and the other half during extension movements. Importantly, as the experimental pain was induced with laser simulations, the results cannot be directly transferred to a population of patients suffering from clinical pain.

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