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Can you forget pain?

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

“Forgetting pain” would be an amazing and profound phenomenon… if it actually happens.

Back in 2007, Choi et al reported two cases of amnesia (different causes) preceding relief from severe chronic pain and the end of any need for opioid management. The implication is that amnesia relieved the pain. 😮

Unfortunately, these stories may not be what they seem. The disappearance of pain after amnesia could definitely be correlation, not causation. Both of these cases were extremely complex, humans in severe distress, with many potential confounding factors. They are also the only case reports of their kind that I can find. And two messy, lonely data points just aren’t enough to blow my mind.

Still… while correlation doesn’t equal causation, “it sure is a hint” (Tufte). So what if amnesia actually gave them relief?

That would imply that chronic pain can be strongly dependent on the contents of the mind — pain as a function of identity, of what we think we know about ourselves. No pain without context and meaning!

If so, that would not imply that we “control” pain, of course. It would not mean that we can either create or relieve pain with our thoughts, because our “thoughts” are only a small part of what goes on between our ears. We have no more control over what we remember and what it means to us than we have over a phobia or flinching away from a flame.

Hat tip to Christine Sutherland for helping me decide how seriously to take these case studies — not super seriously. My enthusiasm was curbed. (To learn more about Christine’s related expertise, see Chronic Pain as a Conditioned Behaviour: If pain can be learned, can it be unlearned?)

But they are certainly interesting to think about, and I will not forget the possibility that some kinds of pain can be forgotten.