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Is Pain Perception Altered in People With Depression? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Experimental Pain Research

PainSci » bibliography » Thompson et al 2016
Tags: chronic pain, mind, pain problems

Two articles on PainSci cite Thompson 2016: 1. Chronic, Subtle, Systemic Inflammation2. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Chronic Pain

PainSci commentary on Thompson 2016: ?This page is one of thousands in the bibliography. It is not a general article: it is focused on a single scientific paper, and it may provide only just enough context for the summary to make sense. Links to other papers and more general information are provided wherever possible.

Although “clinical studies suggest depressed patients may be more vulnerable to pain,” it’s far from proven. It’s not clear, and it still isn’t after this meta-analysis of 32 studies. The only real finding here was that there’s so much variety in the results of studies that “it depends” in a big way, on many variables.

This analysis actually found that in some ways depressed patients were less vulnerable to pain — a “small but significant” higher mean sensory threshold and pain threshold — which is interesting but probably not meaningful, given the complexity of the data.

~ Paul Ingraham

original abstract Abstracts here may not perfectly match originals, for a variety of technical and practical reasons. Some abstacts are truncated for my purposes here, if they are particularly long-winded and unhelpful. I occasionally add clarifying notes. And I make some minor corrections.

Although clinical studies suggest depressed patients may be more vulnerable to pain, experimental research is equivocal. This meta-analysis aimed to clarify whether depression is associated with altered pain perception in response to noxious stimulation and to identify factors that might influence this association. A search of major electronic databases was conducted to identify experimental studies investigating pain response in depressed participants versus healthy control participants using established pain outcome measures. Random effects meta-analysis of standardized mean differences was conducted on data from 32 studies (N = 1,317). For high-intensity noxious stimulation, overall pain tolerance was similar across depressed and control groups (Hedges g = .09, P = .71, studies = 10). For low-intensity stimulation, a small, but statistically significant higher mean sensory threshold (g = .35, P = .01, studies = 9) and pain threshold (g = .32, P = .02, studies = 25) was observed in depressed participants, suggesting diminished pain. However, considerable heterogeneity in the direction and magnitude of effects was observed, indicating a likely condition-specific effect of depression on pain. Subgroup analysis found that pain threshold/tolerance was increased in depression for exteroceptive (cutaneous) stimulation but decreased for interoceptive (ischemic) stimulation, but that substantial heterogeneity remained. Overall, results provide some support for altered pain processing in depression, but suggest this link is dependent upon modality and additional, unidentified factors. PERSPECTIVE: This meta-analysis of experimental studies suggests potential effects of depression on pain perception are variable and likely to depend upon multiple factors. The contrasting pattern for ischemic versus other noxious stimuli suggests that stimulus modality is a key factor, which could help explain discrepancies across clinical and experimental findings.

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