Spatial Summation of Pain in Humans Investigated Using Transcutaneous Electrical Stimulation

Published:October 19, 2014DOI:


      • Spatial summation exists for electrical stimuli, even at 20-cm separations.
      • Pain was greater for paired stimuli than for a single stimulus of equal intensity.
      • Pain was greater when paired stimuli were at 5-, 10-, and 20-cm separations.
      • Area- and distance-based spatial summation exists for electrical stimuli.
      • The findings suggest a proximal-distal gradient in nociceptive sensitivity.


      Spatial summation of pain is well accepted but surprisingly understudied. Area-based summation refers to the increase in pain evoked by increasing the area of stimulation. Distance-based summation refers to the increase in pain evoked by increasing the distance between multiple stimuli. Although transcutaneous electrical stimulation has several advantages over other experimental pain paradigms, whether or not this modality evokes spatial summation remains unknown. We aimed to answer this question in order to lay the foundation for critical studies of spatial summation. Twenty-five healthy participants received stimuli on their forearm, and the primary outcome, pain intensity, was compared across 5 spatial configurations—1 with a single stimulus and 4 paired configurations at 0-, 5-, 10-, and 20-cm separations. Importantly, the potential confounder of a proximal-distal gradient in nociceptive sensitivity was removed in this study. Pain intensity was higher in response to the paired stimuli than in response to the single stimulus (P < .001), and the paired stimuli separated by 5, 10 and 20 cm, evoked greater pain than stimuli at a separation of 0 cm (P < .001), thus confirming both area- and distance-based summation, respectively. We conclude that transcutaneous electrical stimulation is appropriate for future investigations of spatial summation.


      Distance-based summation is likely implicated in some clinical pain. However, current understanding for spatial summation is limited. This study demonstrates that transcutaneous electrical stimulation is safe, feasible, and valid for future investigations of spatial summation and will allow critical questions to be answered.

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