Pain or nociception? Subjective experience mediates the effects of acute noxious heat on autonomic responses

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Abstract

Nociception reliably elicits an autonomic nervous system (ANS) response. Because pain and ANS circuitry interact on multiple spinal, subcortical, and cortical levels, it remains unclear whether autonomic responses are simply a reflexive product of noxious stimulation regardless of how stimulation is consciously perceived or whether the experience of pain mediates ANS responses to noxious stimulation. To test these alternative predictions, we examined the relative contribution of noxious stimulation and individual pain experience to ANS responses in healthy volunteers who underwent 1 or 2 pain assessment tasks. Participants received 8 seconds of thermal stimulation of varied temperatures and judged pain intensity on every trial. Skin conductance responses and pupil dilation responses to stimulation served as measures of the heat-evoked autonomic response. We used multilevel modelling to examine trial-by-trial relationships between heat, pain, and ANS response. Although both pain and noxious heat stimulation predicted skin conductance response and pupil dilation response in separate analyses, the individual pain experience statistically mediated effects of noxious heat on both outcomes. Furthermore, moderated mediation revealed that evidence for this process was stronger when stimulation was perceived as painful compared with when stimulation was perceived as nonpainful. These findings suggest that pain appraisal regulates the heat-evoked autonomic response to noxious stimulation, documenting the flexibility of the autonomic pain response to adjust to perceived or actual changes in environmental affordances above and beyond nociceptive input.

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