When I was pregnant with my son, I knew I wanted a natural labor with no medications. I went into labor early in the evening and labored throughout the night, for 16 hours total, while my husband slept through most of it. At the time I was annoyed, but perhaps he had the right idea – a new study has found that the presence of loved ones can actually make pain feel worse.
A new study from the Kings College, London has found that people who share less intimacy with their partners feel more pain from a stimulus when their partners are present.
To test whether this personality construct, termed attachment style, might effect whether partner support decreases or increases pain, the researchers recruited 39 women and asked them to complete a questionnaire to assess the extent to which each woman either sought or avoided emotional intimacy or “closeness” in their relationship.
The questionnaire asked participants to rate how much they agreed with statements such as “I don’t like to show a partner how I feel deep down” or “I feel uncomfortable when my partner gets too close to me.”
The women were then given a moderately painful laser pulse on one of their fingers. The researchers monitored the brains of the participants as well as asked them how painful the stimulus had felt.
The more avoidant the women were of closeness in relationships, the more pain they experienced when their partner was in the room. This spike in pain levels was seen both in the brain scans and the patient’s self-reported pain levels. However, the women who most sought closeness in relationships did not feel less pain than usual. These results would seem to overturn the conventional wisdom that the support and presence of a loved one is beneficial when someone has to go through a painful experience or procedure.
The scientists suggest that the presence of a loved one may disrupt the preferred method of coping with pain for each individual. The so-called “love hormones” oxytocin and dopamine may also be involved in the pain response. In the end, my husband woke up just in time to hold my hand and whisper encouragement as I pushed our son out into the world – and since he was so well-rested after almost 15 hours of sleep during my labor, he did most of the work caring for our newborn as I recovered from the birth in hospital. Laboring quietly and calmly on my own worked for me – perhaps I would have had a different experience if my husband had been awake and trying to “help.”
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