Age-related differences in endogenous pain modulation: a comparison of diffuse noxious inhibitory controls in healthy older and younger adults

Pain. 2003 Jan;101(1-2):155-65. doi: 10.1016/s0304-3959(02)00324-x.


Despite decades of research, hundreds of studies, and a number of recent reviews, the effects of aging on the experience of pain remain poorly understood. Many prior investigators have reported increases in persistent pain conditions and diminished tolerance for certain types of laboratory-induced pain among the elderly. While explanations for these effects often propose senescent decrements in endogenous analgesic systems as a possible contributory mechanism, almost no direct empirical evidence for this hypothesis has yet emerged in human studies. The present investigation was designed to evaluate the existence and nature of these putative age-related differences in endogenous pain inhibition. Groups of healthy younger (n=45, mean age=21.6 years, range=18-25) and older (n=48, mean age=63.1 years, range=55-67) adults participated in a controlled, two-session laboratory assessment of diffuse noxious inhibitory controls (DNIC), a measure of endogenous pain inhibition. In this study, we examined age differences in the effects of concurrent cold pain on ratings of heterotopically presented repetitive noxious thermal stimuli. Interestingly, older adults demonstrated facilitation rather than inhibition of thermal pain during concurrent noxious cold stimulation while younger adults demonstrated some expected DNIC effects (i.e. a reduction in thermal pain ratings during heterotopic stimulation with noxious cold). Collectively, the findings of the present study suggest age-associated decrements in at least one form of endogenous analgesic response. If replicated, such findings of reduced pain-modulatory capacity in the elderly may partially explain age-related differences in the prevalence, severity, and impact of chronic pain.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Cold Temperature
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology*
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Skin Temperature
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Water


  • Water