Pain tends to grab our attention, making it difficult to concentrate on other tasks.
This is generally a useful feature of pain – if we burn ourselves while cooking, it’s good that our attention switches away from the food and towards the pain so that we can adequately protect ourselves.
However, if the pain doesn’t signal threat (e.g. a tension headache) or if it becomes chronic, this could have negative consequences for our ability to concentrate, with no benefit to our safety.
Several studies have demonstrated this effect on a variety of attention tasks in people with
- chronic pain[1,2],
- recurrent transient pain (such as headaches or
- menstrual pain) and
- with experimentally-induced pain in the laboratory (using electocutaneous or
- thermal pain).
While many studies have shown that pain is detrimental to attention, the specific effects tend to vary between studies.
In some cases, being in pain makes participants less accurate, and in other cases it makes them slower, even when attention is measured using the same tasks.
One reason for this could be that different studies have investigated different types of pain (e.g. electrocutaneous, headache, menstrual); maybe different pains have different effects on attention.
The fact that we found different effects of pain on attention suggests that the effect of a headache on attention is dynamic.
The way in which pain distracts us could depend on many factors, besides the type of pain, such as
- how much we catastrophize about pain,
- how fearful we are,
- the intensity of the pain,
- how threatening it is,
- what mood we are in that day, and
- how interested we are in the task we are trying to complete.
If we can pinpoint the factors that modulate the effect of pain on attention, we may be able to develop strategies for counteracting its effects. In the meantime, this area of research highlights one of the many ways in which pain can affect people’s lives.
Author: Dr Nina Attridge is a lecturer in the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University, UK, and an honorary research fellow in the Centre for Pain Research at the University of Bath, UK.
 Berryman, C., Stanton, T. R., Bowering, K. J., Tabor, A., McFarlane, A., & Moseley, G. L. (2013). Evidence for working memory deficits in chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain, 154, 1181-1196.
 Berryman, C., Stanton, T. R., Bowering, K. J., Tabor, A., McFarlane, A., & Moseley, G. L. (2014). Do people with chronic pain have impaired executive function? A meta-analytical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 34, 563-579.
 Moore, D. J., Keogh, E., & Eccleston, C. (2013). Headache impairs attentional performance. Pain, 154, 1840-1845.
 Keogh, E., Cavill, R., Moore, D. J., & Eccleston, C. (2014). The effects of menstrual-related pain on attentional interference. Pain, 155, 821-827.
 Van Ryckeghem, D. M., Crombez, G., Eccleston, C., Liefooghe, B., & Van Damme, S. (2012). The interruptive effect of pain in a multitask environment: an experimental investigation. Journal of Pain, 13, 131-138.
 Moore, D. J., Keogh, E., & Eccleston, C. (2012). The interruptive effect of pain on attention. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 565-586.
 Attridge, N., Eccleston, C., Noonan, D., Wainwright, E., & Keogh, E. (in press). Headache impairs attentional performance: a conceptual replication and extension. Journal of Pain.