People with chronic facial pain perform worse than controls at a facial emotion recognition task, but it is not all about the emotion

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Abstract

Alexithymia, or a lack of emotional awareness, is prevalent in some chronic pain conditions and has been linked to poor recognition of others' emotions. Recognising others' emotions from their facial expression involves both emotional and motor processing, but the possible contribution of motor disruption has not been considered. It is possible that poor performance on emotional recognition tasks could reflect problems with emotional processing, motor processing or both. We hypothesised that people with chronic facial pain would be less accurate in recognising others' emotions from facial expressions, would be less accurate in a motor imagery task involving the face, and that performance on both tasks would be positively related. A convenience sample of 19 people (15 females) with chronic facial pain and 19 gender-matched controls participated. They undertook two tasks; in the first task, they identified the facial emotion presented in a photograph. In the second, they identified whether the person in the image had a facial feature pointed towards their left or right side, a well-recognised paradigm to induce implicit motor imagery. People with chronic facial pain performed worse than controls at both tasks (Facially Expressed Emotion Labelling (FEEL) taskP< 0·001; left/right judgment taskP< 0·001). Participants who were more accurate at one task were also more accurate at the other, regardless of group (P< 0·001,r2 = 0·523). Participants with chronic facial pain were worse than controls at both the FEEL emotion recognition task and the left/right facial expression task and performance covaried within participants. We propose that disrupted motor processing may underpin or at least contribute to the difficulty that facial pain patients have in emotion recognition and that further research that tests this proposal is warranted.

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