Research Article| Volume 22, ISSUE 8, P981-995, August 2021

Pain Catastrophizing Mediates and Moderates the Link Between Acute Pain and Working Memory


      • The ischemic pain (vs. control) group reported greater state pain catastrophizing.
      • State pain catastrophizing mediated the effect of group on working memory.
      • This mediated effect was moderated by trait pain catastrophizing.
      • Treatments for pain catastrophizing may ameliorate pain-related cognitive deficits.


      The bidirectional relationship between pain and working memory (WM) deficits is well-documented but poorly understood. Pain catastrophizing—exaggerated, negative cognitive and emotional responses toward pain—may contribute to WM deficits by occupying finite, shared cognitive resources. The present study assessed the role of pain catastrophizing as both a state-level process and trait-level disposition in the link between acute pain and WM. Healthy, young adults were randomized to an experimentally-induced ischemic pain or control task, during which they completed verbal and non-verbal WM tests. Participants also completed measures of state- and trait-level pain catastrophizing. Simple mediation analyses indicated that participants in the pain group (vs. control) engaged in more state-level catastrophizing about pain, which led to worse verbal and non-verbal WM. Moderated mediation analyses indicated that the indirect (mediation) effect of state-level pain catastrophizing was moderated by trait-level pain catastrophizing for both verbal and non-verbal WM. Participants in the pain group who reported a greater trait-level tendency to catastrophize about pain experienced greater state-level catastrophizing about pain during the ischemic task, which led to worse verbal and non-verbal WM performance. These results provide evidence for pain catastrophizing as an important mechanism and moderating factor of WM deficits in acute pain. Future research should replicate these results in chronic pain samples, investigate other potential mechanisms (e.g., sleep disturbances), and determine if interventions that target pain catastrophizing directly can ameliorate cognitive deficits in people with pain.


      This article presents a laboratory study examining the relationships among pain, pain catastrophizing, and working memory in healthy participants. The results shed new light on these relationships and raise the possibility that interventions that reduce catastrophizing may lead to improved cognitive function among people with pain.

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