Pain rather than induced emotions and ICU sound increases skin conductance variability in healthy volunteers

Acta Anaesthesiol Scand. 2016 Sep;60(8):1111-20. doi: 10.1111/aas.12751.


Background: Assessing pain in critically ill patients is difficult. Skin conductance variability (SCV), induced by the sympathetic response to pain, has been suggested as a method to identify pain in poorly communicating patients. However, SCV, a derivate of conventional skin conductance, could potentially also be sensitive to emotional stress. The purpose of the study was to investigate if pain and emotional stress can be distinguished with SCV.

Methods: In a series of twelve 1-min sessions with SCV recording, 18 healthy volunteers were exposed to standardized electric pain stimulation during blocks of positive, negative, or neutral emotion, induced with pictures from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS). Additionally, authentic intensive care unit (ICU) sound was included in half of the sessions. All possible combinations of pain and sound occurred in each block of emotion, and blocks were presented in randomized order.

Results: Pain stimulation resulted in increases in the number of skin conductance fluctuations (NSCF) in all but one participant. During pain-free baseline sessions, the median NSCF was 0.068 (interquartile range 0.013-0.089) and during pain stimulation median NSCF increased to 0.225 (interquartile range 0.146-0.3175). Only small increases in NSCF were found during negative emotions. Pain, assessed with the numeric rating scale, during the sessions with pain stimulation was not altered significantly by other ongoing sensory input.

Conclusion: In healthy volunteers, NSCF appears to reflect ongoing autonomous reactions mainly to pain and to a lesser extent, reactions to emotion induced with IAPS pictures or ICU sound.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*