Temporal summation (TS) refers to the increased perception of pain with repetitive noxious stimuli. While thermal TS is generally considered a behavioral correlate of spinal windup, noxious heat pulses also trigger additional sensory processes which were modeled in this study.
Nineteen healthy volunteers (9 females, mean age 29.2, SD 10.5) underwent two identical TS experiments, spaced a week apart. The TS paradigm consisted of 10 identical heat pulses with individualized temperatures at the thenar eminence (0.5Hz). We extracted 3 features from continuous TS response curves: Lag, time to first feel pain; Slope, the rate of pain increase between the first and most painful heat pulse; and Delta, the maximum drop in pain after peak pain is reached. We then examined the within-individual stability of these features, followed by the Pearson’s correlations among these features and between the features and negative affect.
All 3 features were stable over 1 week. Lag and Delta were negatively correlated ( r = −0.5, p = 0.042). Slope did not correlate with Lag or Delta, but strongly correlated with a traditional TS measure, first pulse pain and peak pain difference ( r = 0.91, p < 0.0001). Negative affects such as trait and state anxiety were negatively correlated with baseline ( r = −0.49, p = 0.031) and peak stimulating temperature ( r = −0.48, p = 0.039), respectively, suggesting an association between anxiety and greater pain sensitivity.
We were able to decouple spinal windup from other perceptual processes generated by phasic thermal TS paradigms and demonstrate temporal stability of these curve features. These curve features may help better characterize the complex sensory response to noxious heat pulses and serve as biomarkers to profile patients with chronic pain.