Can Crossing Your Fingers Reduce Pain?

A provocative study hints at the possibility for chronic sufferers

New research shows that the position of your fingers can change the level of pain in one of the fingers.

You may have heard of the “thermal grill illusion.” In that experiment, the subjects’ index, middle and ring fingers are exposed to warm, cold and warm temperatures, respectively. Even though the middle finger is exposed to cold, it feels a burning heat.
For the new variation of the test, as reported this week in the journal Current Biology: Researchers at University College London tried the illusion on students and then told them to cross their middle fingers over their index fingers. This time, the burning feeling was diminished.

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“Our results showed that a simple spatial pattern determined the burning heat sensation,” said Dr. Elisa Ferré of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, a co-lead author on the study. “When the cold finger was moved to an outside position, the burning sensation was reduced. The brain seemed to use the spatial arrangement of all three stimuli to produce the burning heat sensation on just one finger.”

More Study Needed
She told Next Avenue that the broader implications for the research were hard to predict.
“Our study involved acute experimental pain, with healthy students, and that kind of pain is different from the kind people with chronic pain have,” Ferré said.
And yet, said the institute’s Prof. Patrick Haggard, the study provides a little more insight into what’s going on in the brain when it comes to pain.

(MORE: 7 Back Pain Myths Busted)
“Interactions like these may contribute to the astonishing variability of pain,” said Haggard, senior author of the study. “Many people suffer from chronic pain, and the level of pain experienced can be higher than would be expected from actual tissue damage.
“Our research is basic laboratory science, but it raises the interesting possibility that pain levels could be manipulated by applying additional stimuli, and by moving one part of the body relative to others,” he said.
Ferré said she hoped further research would be done in that direction.

By Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. She previously spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul.@EmilyGurnon

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