A psychophysical comparison of sensory and affective responses to four modalities of experimental pain

Somatosens Mot Res. 1992;9(4):265-77. doi: 10.3109/08990229209144776.


It is generally accepted that the sensory and affective components of pain may be differentially associated with various acute and chronic diseases, and that some treatment regimens are best directed toward certain aspects of the pain experience. In addition, experimental animal models have been described that presume to assess either the sensory-discriminative aspects of phasic pain or the affective responses associated with tonic pain. The present psychophysical experiment directly compares the perceived intensity and unpleasantness of sensations evoked by four types of experimental noxious stimuli: contact heat, electric shock, ischemic exercise, and cold-pressor pain. A novel pain measurement technique is described that incorporates unbounded magnitude-estimation/category scales; this technique allows precise ratio responses, while minimizing within- and between-subject variability. We observe that, relative to the perceived intensity of the individual stimuli, subjects consistently differentiate among the degrees of unpleasantness evoked by the four stimulus modalities. Ischemic exercise and cold-pressor pain evoke higher estimates of unpleasantness, and thus may better mimic the pain of chronic disease. The relative unpleasantness produced by contact heat is significantly less than that of the other modalities tested, and therefore contact heat stimuli may be ideally suited for assessing sensory-discriminative aspects of pain perception. Possible neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the observed differences in perceived unpleasantness are discussed in relation to the growing body of literature concerning tonic and phasic pain stimuli.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electroshock
  • Humans
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Pain Measurement*
  • Pain Threshold*
  • Psychophysics
  • Thermosensing