In chronic pain, habituation is believed to be impaired, and pain hypervigilance can enhance the pain experience. The goal of this study was to determine whether pain hypervigilance further worsens habituation of event-related potentials, measured in a pain-rating protocol of 25 painful somatosensory electrical stimuli, in patients with chronic pain.
Pain hypervigilance was assessed with the Pain Vigilance Awareness Questionnaire and analyzed using the event-related fixed interval areas multilevel technique, which enables one to study within-session habituation. In a cohort of 111 participants, 33 reported chronic pain. This chronic pain group was compared with 33 pain-free individuals, matched for age and sex.
The relationship between pain status and habituation was not moderated by pain hypervigilance. Chronic pain status affected linear habituation and dishabituation (quadratic function) from 220 to 260 ms for nearly all electrodes, and from 580 to 640 ms for frontal electrodes. The effect of pain hypervigilance on habituation was observed primarily from 480 to 820 ms poststimulus for right-sided and central electrodes.
Pain hypervigilance and chronic pain independently influence habituation to painful stimuli – although not synergistically. To confirm that these effects are mediated by separate pathways, further research is required, in which electroencephalography is combined with other modalities with adequate spatial resolution, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging.