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When words burn – language processing differentially modulates pain perception in typical and chronic pain populations


How do we communicate our pain to others? The challenge of conveying such a highly individual experience in words is faced daily by many sufferers of chronic pain and their doctors. Moreover, such linguistic strategies are especially relevant in situations where no obvious reference to physical injuries or tissue damage can be made. Neurolinguistically, this question is directly linked to understanding the brain mechanisms behind the encoding, storage, and comprehension of word meanings. An influential view posits that comprehension involves mentally simulating sensorimotor experiences which words refer to. Here, we test the hypothesis that both pain word comprehension and first-hand experiences of pain rely on a common neural substrate, leading to a prediction that word processing should modulate the perception of noxious stimuli. We used a priming task and asked neurotypical and chronic pain participants to read sentences containing literal or metaphoric pain descriptors, and then rate the intensity of thermal pain stimuli. We found that pain language comprehension modulated participants’ ratings of pain intensity. Furthermore, this effect depended on linguistic context as well as individual pain history. We discuss our findings within the larger theoretical debate on the nature of semantic representations, and point to their potential relevance for clinical practice.

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