Greater fear of visceral pain contributes to differences between visceral and somatic pain in healthy women

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This functional magnetic resonance imaging study addressed similarities and differences in behavioral and neural responses to experimental visceral compared with somatic pain stimuli and explored the contribution of fear of pain to differences between pain modalities. In N = 22 healthy women, we assessed blood oxygen level–dependent responses to rectal distensions and cutaneous heat stimuli matched for perceived pain intensity. Fear of pain and pain unpleasantness were assessed before and after scanning. Visceral pain was more fear evoking and more unpleasant, and trial-by-trial intensity ratings failed to habituate across trials (all interactions modality × time: P < 0.01). Differences in fear of pain and pain intensity independently contributed to greater visceral pain unpleasantness (combined regression model: R2 = 0.59). We observed joint neural activations in somatosensory cortex and frontoparietal attention network (conjunction analysis: all pFWE <0.05), but distensions induced greater activation in somatosensory cortex, dorsal and ventral anterior insula, dorsal anterior and midcingulate cortices, and brainstem, whereas cutaneous heat pain led to enhanced activation in posterior insula and hippocampus (all pFWE <0.05). Fear of visceral pain correlated with prefrontal activation, but did not consistently contribute to neural differences between modalities. These findings in healthy women support marked differences between phasic pain induced by rectal distensions vs cutaneous heat, likely reflecting the higher salience of visceral pain. More studies with clinically relevant pain models are needed to discern the role of fear in normal interindividual differences in the response to different types of pain and as a putative risk factor in the transition from acute to chronic pain.

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