Counterirritation by Pain Inhibits Responses to and Perception of Aversive Loud Tones

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Metzger, Silvia
Horn-Hofmann, Claudia
Lautenbacher, Stefan
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The application of a noxious stimulus reduces the perception of other noxious stimuli, which can be assessed by an experimental method called “counterirritation.” The question arises whether this type of inhibition also affects the processing of other aversive (but not nociceptive) stimuli, such as loud tones. If aversiveness or, in other words, negative emotional valence qualifies a stimulus to be affected by counterirritation, the general emotional context may also play a role in modulating counterirritation effects. We involved 63 participants in this study (M age = 38.8, SD = 10.5 years; 33 males, 30 females). We tried to counterirritate their perceptual and startle reactions to aversively loud tones (105 db) by immersing the hand into a painful hot water bath (46°C) in two emotional valence conditions (i.e., a neutral and a negative valence block in which we showed either neutral pictures or pictures of burn wounds). We assessed Inhibition by loudness ratings and startle reflex amplitudes. Counterirritation significantly reduced both loudness ratings and startle reflex amplitudes. The emotional context manipulation did not affect this clear inhibitory effect, showing that counterirritation by a noxious stimulus affects aversive sensations not induced by nociceptive stimuli. Thus, the assumption that “pain inhibits pain” should be widened to “pain inhibits the processing of aversive stimuli.” This broadened understanding of counterirritation leads to a questioning of the postulate of clear pain specificity in paradigms like “conditioned pain modulation” (CPM) or “diffuse noxious inhibitory controls” (DNIC).
counterirritation, pain inhibition, pain specificity, aversiveness, unpleasantness