Objective: The perception of pain is susceptible to modulation by psychological and contextual factors. It has been shown that subjects judge noxious stimuli as more painful in a respective suggestive context, which disappears when the modifying context is resolved. However, a context in which subjects judge the painfulness of a nociceptive stimulus in exactly the opposite direction to that of the cues has never been shown so far.
Methods: Nociceptive stimuli (300 ms intranasal gaseous CO2) at the individual pain threshold level were applied after a visual cue announcing the stimulus as either "no pain", merely a "stimulus", or "pain". Among the stimuli at threshold level, other CO2 stimuli that were clearly below or above pain threshold were randomly interspersed. These were announced beforehand in 12 subjects randomly with correct or incorrect cues, i.e., clearly painful or clearly non-painful stimuli were announced equally often as not painful or painful. By contrast, in a subsequent group of another 12 subjects, the stimuli were always announced correctly with respect to the evoked pain.
Results: The random and often incorrect announcement of stimuli clearly below or above pain threshold caused the subjects to rate the stimuli at pain-threshold level in the opposite direction of the cue, i.e., when the stimuli were announced as "pain" significantly more often than as non-painful and vice versa (p < 10(-4)). By contrast, in the absence of incongruence between announcement and perception of the far-from-threshold stimuli, stimuli at pain threshold were rated in the cued direction.
Conclusions: The present study revealed the induction of associations incongruent with a given message in the perception of pain. We created a context of unreliable cues whereby subjects perceived the stimulus opposite to that suggested by a prior cue, i.e., potentially nociceptive stimuli at pain threshold level that were announced as painful were judged as non-painful and vice versa. These findings are consistent with reported data on the effects of distrust on non-painful cognitive responses.