Objective. To examine the effects of social support provided by the presence of patient's significant other on pain ratings, pain thresholds, and brain activity associated with tactile stimulation in 18 fibromyalgia (FM) patients and 18 migraine patients (controls), and to assess the influence of emotional context on thermal pain perception and processing of non-pain-related information. Methods. Thermal pain thresholds and somatosensory brain magnetic responses elicited by tactile stimulation at the elbow (a painful tender point in the FM group) and at the finger (nonpainful site) were evaluated under 2 experimental conditions of social support: patient alone and patient's significant other present. Brain activity was recorded using a 151-channel whole-head magnetoencephalography system. Additionally, the emotional context during presentation of tactile stimuli was manipulated by presenting aversive, pain-related pictures and neutral pictures and asking the patients to imagine that they were experiencing the situations depicted. Results. Thermal pain thresholds indicated greater sensitivity in FM patients than in migraine patients, as well as enhanced sensitivity at the elbow than at the fingers. Specifically, in FM patients, there were significant reductions in pain sensitivity and subjective pain ratings when patients were stimulated at the painful tender point in the presence of their significant others as compared with the ratings when the patients were alone. Brain activity elicited by elbow stimulation was also significantly reduced in FM patients when a significant other was present as compared with the activity when the patient was alone. These effects were not observed in the migraine patients. Conclusion. When the significant other was present, FM patients reported less pain and thermal pain sensitivity and showed diminished brain activity elicited upon tactile stimulation of a tender point compared with these levels when the patients were alone. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that social support through the presence of a significant other can influence pain processing at the subjective-behavioral level as well as the central nervous system level.
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