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Purpose: Conditioned pain modulation (CPM) is an experimental approach for probing endogenous analgesia by which one painful stimulus (the conditioning stimulus) may inhibit the perceived pain of a subsequent stimulus (the test stimulus). Animal studies suggest that CPM is mediated by a spino–bulbo–spinal loop using objective measures such as neuronal firing. In humans, pain ratings are often used as the end point. Because pain self-reports are subject to cognitive influences, we tested whether cognitive factors would impact on CPM results in healthy humans.
Methods: We conducted a within-subject, crossover study of healthy adults to determine the extent to which CPM is affected by 1) threatening and reassuring evaluation and 2) imagery alone of a cold conditioning stimulus. We used a heat stimulus individualized to 5/10 on a visual analog scale as the testing stimulus and computed the magnitude of CPM by subtracting the postconditioning rating from the baseline pain rating of the heat stimulus.
Results: We found that although evaluation can increase the pain rating of the conditioning stimulus, it did not significantly alter the magnitude of CPM. We also found that imagery of cold pain alone did not result in statistically significant CPM effect.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that CPM is primarily dependent on sensory input, and that the cortical processes of evaluation and imagery have little impact on CPM. These findings lend support for CPM as a useful tool for probing endogenous analgesia through subcortical mechanisms.