Rubbing or massaging is often an instinctive response to pain. Now researchers have found that another kind of touch, vibration, can also help reduce certain types of pain by more than 40%. This is an exciting discovery as researchers are encouraged by the prospect that vibration therapies could bring relief to chronic pain sufferers without the use of medication.
According to professor Dr. Roland Staud “The vibration truly represents an analgesic effect,” says. He is a professor of rheumatology and clinical immunology in the University of Florida College of Medicine. “This is exciting because it is something that provides pain relief that is not associated with great cost.”
Naturally occurring mechanisms help to blunt the severity of pain signals sent to the brain, but effectiveness of those systems varies from person to person, and in some people they fail altogether. Previous studies have shown that individuals with pain disorders of unknown cause - including fibromyalgia, migraine and irritable bowel syndrome - are less efficient at inhibiting pain.
To study chronic pain, one therapy that researchers use, ironically, is to subject individuals to pain of a different kind. The treatment is somewhat effective, but has its downside. “It is, of course, very unappealing for patients,” Dr. Staud said.
The UF researchers decided to see how well a less painful kind of therapy might work.
First, they applied pain-inducing heat to the forearms of participants, some of whom had fibromyalgia, some of whom had head and neck pain and some who were pain free. The researchers then used a special motor to deliver a high-frequency vibration to the skin and deep tissues of the arm to see whether that would relieve the pain caused by the heat. It did.
It was found that all three groups of patients experienced 40% reduction in pain when the vibration was applied.
“This is the first time a nonpainful stimulus has been found to have such an effect in fibromyalgia patients,” Dr. Staud said. The results differ from previous findings showing that chronic pain sufferers have defective pain relief mechanisms that defy therapy.
Researchers question why there was a decrease in pain in the participants, and came up two theories:
- Was it because the vibration provided a distractionn from the pain?
- Or was it truly a change in the pain signals being transmitted to the central nervous system?
To see whether the location of vibration affected pain relief, the researchers applied heat pain and vibration to the same arm in one set of experiments, and applied heat to one arm and vibration to the other in another set of tests.
Pain relief was greater when the vibration was applied to the same arm subjected to heat, compared with when the heat and vibration were applied to different arms.
In the past, brain studies of various animals have shown that vibration might interfere with transmission of pain signals from various parts of the body to the central nervous system.
The current study indicates that even in people who experience chronic pain, some mechanisms for decreasing pain intensity are still in working order, but don’t spring into action when needed.
“They have this capacity,” Dr. Staud said. “What we don’t understand is why they have problems using it.”
- Vibration Therapy: Can Reduce Fibromyalgia, Chronic Head & Neck Pain Substantially
- “Attenuation of experimental pain by vibro-tactile stimulation in patients with chronic local or widespread musculoskeletal pain,” Staud R, et al. European Journal of Pain, online Feb 22, 2011.
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- Regions of the Brain Involved in Pain Processing are Different for Fibromyalgia Patients, Study Shows
- Chronic Pain Can Be Treated Better with Collaberative Treatments, study shows
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- Back Pain and Neck Pain Due to Fibromyalgia: Can Diet Make A Difference?