Greater Response Interference to Pain Faces Under Low Perceptual Load Conditions in Adolescents With Impairing Pain: A Role for Poor Attention Control Mechanisms in Pain Disability?

Published:October 29, 2018DOI:


      Persistent pain in young people in the community is common, but individuals vary in how much pain impacts daily life. Information-processing accounts of chronic pain partly attribute the fear and avoidance of pain, as well as associated interference, to a set of involuntary biases, including the preferential allocation of attention resources toward potential threats. Far less research has focused on the role of voluntary goal-directed attention control processes, the ability to flexibly direct attention toward and away from threats, in explaining pain-associated interference. Using a visual search task, we explored a poor attention control account of pain interference in young people with persistent pain from the community. One hundred and forty five young people aged 16 to 19 years were categorized into three groups: non-chronic pain (n = 68), low-interfering persistent pain (n = 40), and moderate- to high-interfering persistent pain (n = 22). We found that only adolescents with moderate-to high-interfering persistent pain but not the other two groups of adolescents were affected by a search task preceded by a pain face (compared to a neutral face), but this within-group difference emerged only under low perceptual load conditions. Because low perceptual load conditions are thought to require more strategic attention resources to suppress the interfering effects of pain face primes, our findings are consistent with a poor attention control account of pain interference in young people. Analyses further showed that these differences in task performance were not explained by confounding effects of anxiety. If replicated, these findings may have implications for understanding and managing the pain-associated disability in adolescents with chronic pain.


      Young people with moderately and highly interfering pain responded slower on an easy search task after seeing a pain face than after seeing a neutral face. If replicated, these findings could mean that boosting the ability to control attention toward and away from threatening cues is an effective strategy for managing interference from pain.

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