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Pain Can Spread Between People

Update Date: May 08, 2013 10:15 AM EDT

People can feel pain just by witnessing others in agony, according to a new study.

Researchers at Monash University looked into the phenomenon known as somatic contagion and found that almost one in three people could feel pain when they see others in pain.

Researchers studied two groups of people who were predisposed to this response- people who develop it following trauma or injury such as amputation or chronic pain and those with the congenital variant or the condition present at birth.

Lead researcher Dr. Melita Giummarr found that in some cases people suffered severe painful sensations in response to another person's pain.

"My research is now beginning to differentiate between at least these two unique profiles of somatic contagion," Giummarra said in a news release.

"While the congenital variant appears to involve a blurring of the boundary between self and other, with heightened empathy, acquired somatic contagion involves reduced empathic concern for others, but increased personal distress," she explained. "This suggests that the pain triggered corresponds to a focus on their own pain experience rather than that of others."

Researchers say most people feel emotional discomfort when they witness pain in another person and neuroimaging studies have linked this to activation in the parts of the brain involved in the personal experience of pain.

For some people the pain they feel through others mirrors the location and site of the pain in another they are witnessing and is generally localized.

"We know that the same regions of the brain are activated for these groups of people as when they experience their own pain. First in emotional regions but then there is also sensory activation. It is a vicarious - it literally triggers their pain," Giummarra explained.

Giummarra and her team have also developed the Empathy for Pain Scale, which is a new tool that characterizes the reactions of people have when they witness others in pain. 

The latest findings were presented at the Australian and New Zealand College of Anesthetists'' annual scientific meeting in Melbourne earlier this week.

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