Study: Posttraumatic Stress May Change Pain Tolerance

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may alter the way the brain handles pain, a new study shows.

The researchers included Elbert Geuze, Ph.D., of the Netherlands' Department of Military Psychiatry. Their study appears in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Geuze and colleagues studied 24 male Dutch veterans who had served on U.N. peacekeeping missions in Lebanon, Cambodia or Bosnia.

Half of the veterans had PTSD; the others had no history of PTSD. All were 33-34 years old, on average.

Combat’s Toll on a Soldier’s Psyche

PTSD Pain Test

The veterans rated how much pain they felt when their hands were briefly subjected to heat at temperatures ranging from 104-118 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those with PTSD had a higher tolerance for the heat, compared to those without PTSD.

The veterans also got brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they took the heat test.

Drug vs. Talk Therapy for Depression

Those brain scans showed different patterns of brain activity between the veterans with and without PTSD.

For instance, the veterans with PTSD showed less activity in part of their amygdala, a brain area that's involved in the brain's pain response.

The veterans with PTSD reported more stress during the brain scans. It's not clear if that influenced the results, the researchers note.

Depression Treatment: What Are the Options?

While the veterans with PTSD appeared to feel less pain than those without PTSD, other studies have linked PTSD to a greater sense of pain.

Future studies should include civilians with PTSD, note Geuze and colleagues.

Visit WebMD's Health Center

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Dr. Louise Chang.

SOURCES: Geuze, E. Archives of General Psychiatry, January 2007; vol. 64: pp. 76-85. News release, JAMA/Archives.