Have you ever had to undergo a painful medical procedure, and if so, did you request that your significant other be there? Did their support help put you at ease, or did it make you more stressed? The presence of a romantic partner is commonly prescribed by physicians for some procedures as an attempt to make the patient feel better, but a new study suggests being in the company of loved ones can actually make pain feel worse.

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Instead of damping down the pain response in some people, the presence of romantic partners actually exacerbates it – lighting up the areas of the brain typically associated with processing bodily threats.

“We were interested in the role of individuals’ patterns of seeking or avoiding closeness in their relationships,” explains lead author Dr. Charlotte Krahé, of the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience in the UK.

“We wanted to test whether this personality construct, termed attachment style, might determine whether partner support decreases or heightens the experience of pain,” she adds.

Dr. Krahé and colleagues recruited 39 women for their study – the results of which are published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience – and used a questionnaire to assess the extent to which each participant either sought or avoided emotional intimacy or “closeness” in their relationship.

The questionnaire required participants to rate how much they agreed with statements, such as “I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down” or “I get uncomfortable when a romantic partner wants to be very close.”

Dr. Krahé told Medical News Today that the questionnaire has been used extensively and has been shown to capture avoidance well.

“However, questionnaires are always subject to some biases,” she admitted. “For example, participants could potentially shape their answers to appear a certain way. In the present study, it is unlikely that participants would try to appear more avoidant then they really are, because that is not a socially desirable quality to have in a relationship.”

The women were then given a “moderately painful” laser pulse on one of their fingers. As well as asking the women to rate the intensity of the pain they experienced, the researchers also measured electrical activity in the participants’ brains.

The more avoidant the women were of closeness in their relationships, the more pain they experienced when their partner was present. The researchers found that this spike in pain was expressed in both the participants’ self-reported pain ratings and in the electrical activity of their brains.

Interestingly, however, although the most avoidant women were most prone to experiencing pain when in the company of their romantic partner, the women who most sought closeness in relationships did not report feeling less pain than normal.

In fact, the presence of their partners was found to have no significant effect – good or bad – on the pain that closeness-seeking women experienced in the trial.

MNT asked Dr. Krahé if there could be a physiological mechanism to explain reduced pain response in women who reported high closeness with their partner, compared with the avoidant women. Oxytocin and dopamine, for instance, are natural pain relievers and are implicated in the sensation of love.

She replied:

Yes, we do think that oxytocin might be part of a neurobiological mechanism involved in shaping the effects of interacting with close others on the pain experience. In fact, several animal studies have found links between oxytocin and reduced pain responses, and this is now beginning to be studied in humans.

Regarding dopamine, a recent neuroimaging study in humans showed that brain regions involved in processing reward – which are rich in dopamine receptors – were activated when participants experienced reduced pain as a function of seeing photographs of their romantic partner. That study did not measure attachment style differences, though […]”

Therefore, instead of damping down the pain response in these people, the presence of others actually exacerbates it – lighting up the areas of the brain typically associated with processing bodily threats.

However, previous research has found that women not only prefer to have their partners with them during childbirth, but that they also make less use of painkillers after labor if their partners are present for the birth.

We asked Dr. Krahé if the improved pain levels reported in pregnancy studies might be driven by an enhancement of closeness in couples throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Alternatively, could the results have been confounded by some women being reluctant to use painkillers in front of their partner for fear of being judged?

“It would be an interesting possibility to explore how the presence of the partner influences labor pain, and whether this also depends on the woman’s attachment style,” she answered.

“Although giving birth is generally a time of special closeness for couples,” she continued, “we would expect that more avoidant women may be less likely to benefit from the presence of their partner in the sense of experiencing less pain. Whether more avoidant women might also be more reluctant to use painkillers so as not to be judged by their partner is also an interesting question for future research.”