Background: Anxiety has been associated with both increased and decreased pain perception. Rhudy and Meagher (2000) showed that pain sensitivity is enhanced by anxiety (anticipation of shocks), but diminished by fear (confrontation with shocks). A problem of this approach is the confounding of emotional and attentional effects: Administered shocks (fear induction) divert attention away from pain, which might account for lower pain in this condition. Moreover, heterogeneous findings in the past might be due to inter-individual differences in the proneness to react to anxiety and fear such as ones anxiety sensitivity (AS) level.
Objectives: Our aim was to clarify the association between anxiety, fear and pain. We used the NPU paradigm for inducing these emotions and recording pain sensitivity at once with one stimulus to prevent interference by distraction. We assumed that anxiety and fear affect pain differently. Moreover, we hypothesized that subjects with clinically relevant (high) AS (H-AS group) show enhanced pain perception in contrast to low AS subjects (L-AS group).
Method: Forty healthy subjects (female: N=20; age M=23.53 years) participated and H-AS or L-AS status was determined by clinically discriminating cut-off scores of the Anxiety Sensitivity Index-3 (ASI-III). Emotions were induced by the application of unpredictable (anxiety) and predictable (fear) electric stimuli. Pain ratings of electric stimuli were compared between the conditions. Startle reflex and anxiety ratings were recorded.
Results: Results showed no general effects of anxiety and fear on pain perception. However, anxiety enhanced pain sensitivity in H-AS subjects, whereas fear did not affect pain sensitivity. In L-AS subjects no effects on pain perception were found.
Conclusion: Results revealed that anxiety, not fear, enhanced pain perception but only in subjects with clinically relevant AS levels. This indicates that subclinical AS levels are sufficient to increase pain sensitivity, in uncertain situations.