Physicians’ demonstrations of empathy toward their patients can decrease the sensation of pain. Researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) to scan the brains of 20 patients with chronic pain to investigate how a physician’s demeanor may affect patients’ sensitivity to pain, including effects in the central nervous system. During the scans, which were conducted in two sessions, the patients’ legs were exposed to stimuli that ranged from painless to moderately painful.
The study found that patients who were alone during the examination reported greater pain than those who were in the presence of a physician, even though they were subjected to stimuli of the same intensity. In instances in which the physician and patient had already spoken before the brain scan, patients additionally felt that the physician was empathetic and understood their pain. Furthermore, the physicians were better able to estimate the pain that their patients experienced.