Many people live with chronic pain. Whether it’s from injury or illness, chronic pain can affect a person’s mood, relationships, work productivity, and more, making it difficult to enjoy daily life.
Unfortunately, getting pain relief can be a complex process. One reason is that it involves both physiological and social-psychological factors—meaning, pain doesn’t just come from having a fever or breaking your arm, but other things happening in your brain, body, and environment. For example, your experience of pain can be lessened by things like distraction, listening to music, or practicing mindfulness meditation.
As researcher Laura Case of the University of California, San Diego, explains, “There’s no one-to-one relationship between activation of sensory nerves and your experience of pain or touch. . . . Though there’s debate about which brain areas correspond to our final pain experience, all of the main players are interconnected with cognitive and emotional brain areas.”
Now a new study that she coauthored with Jennifer Baumgartner suggests another potential influence on pain: feeling socially connected.
People can protect you from pain
This new study reanalyzed measures collected in an earlier study, in which a group of chronic pain sufferers had been randomly assigned to an intervention shown to reduce pain (sleeping with a heavily weighted blanket) or to a control condition (sleeping with a slightly weighted blanket, which is considered non-therapeutic). After sleeping with their assigned blanket for a week, changes in people’s pain levels were assessed, and the two groups were compared to each other.
In the earlier study, the pain sufferers had also reported on their anxiety and depression symptoms, levels of loneliness, and sense of social connectedness—not how many social connections they had currently, but how generally close they were to other people and how strongly they experienced a sense of belonging. But these had not all been analyzed to see how they related to pain and pain relief from the blankets. That’s where the new study came in.
The new findings showed that people who were more socially connected experienced less pain than those who were less socially connected. After taking into account differences in expectations for pain relief and people’s initial pain levels, those who were socially disconnected felt more pain relief from the weighted blanket than from the lighter blanket, while more socially connected people received equal pain relief from both blankets.
For Baumgartner, these findings suggest that having a sense of belonging provides some level of protection against pain, regardless of any blanket intervention.
“Social support is really important for things that could potentially be threatening, such as stress or pain,” she says. “Having an internalized feeling of being connected with people has an effect on our physical sensations.”
How belonging might help pain
Why would a sense of belonging help with pain? Neither Case nor Baumgartner is sure why.
However, in their study, people who were more socially connected had less anxiety, which could be a factor. Socially connected people probably feel safer and less anxious, says Baumgartner, because they know they can lean on others for support when they’re hurting. Less anxiety means less vigilance around unpleasant bodily sensations, which could decrease their experience of pain.
“Anxiety is strongly coupled with pain, exacerbating people’s surveillance of pain within their body,” she says. “So, having less anxiety is protective—no matter what intervention you receive.”
Case, who studies tactile sensations, says that positive social touch—like receiving a friendly hug or massage—has been shown to reduce pain sensation, and people who are more socially connected likely experience more of those types of touch. Someone who doesn’t have that in their lives much may crave soothing tactile pressure, which is why the weighted blankets can help somewhat.
“If you have difficulty feeling close to others, maybe there are some sensory ways to get around that and help your pain,” she says. “Deep pressure is calming, because it’s associated with the safety of being close to someone else, of being held and protected.”
The power of a big hug
Surprisingly, feelings of depression didn’t seem to affect the relationship between social connection and pain, even though depression has been tied to pain in other research. While this study’s finding might prove to be an outlier, it could also suggest that the hypervigilance accompanying anxiety is more impactful on pain than feeling down.
Either way, it appears that social connection matters when it comes to pain. However, that can’t be manipulated in an experiment. Baumgartner explains that this trait tends to develop early in childhood and may be tied to general attachment styles (secure, anxious, or avoidant). Since these are not easily changed, it’s good to have a useful, non-pharmacological treatment for pain relief in those without good social connectivity, like the weighted blanket.
“The weighted blanket doesn’t involve any sort of social situation at all, but it still seems to have the ability to help people, to some extent,” says Baumgartner. “Though there haven’t been enough rigorous studies done yet, I’m pretty optimistic that a weighted blanket could serve as an alternative or an adjunct to pain treatment—or maybe even a strategy to prevent people from getting chronic pain in the first place.”
Case says that it could substitute in some ways for what’s missing for people when they tend to be avoidant of others.
“Just anecdotally, people [in the study] found a weighted blanket tended to make them feel like they’re getting a big hug, and it’s relaxing and calming,” she says. “A weighted blanket isn’t a cure for chronic pain, and it’s not going to help everyone. But some people in our study did find it valuable.”
Case and Baumgartner’s study adds to a growing body of research showing how important social connectedness and social touch are for our health and well-being—something that’s been getting more attention in recent years. In fact, in a recent advisory report, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, argued that our country is facing a “loneliness epidemic” that is affecting our health and longevity and that we need to create more opportunities for people to connect and build a sense of belonging in their lives.
Now, we know that social connection may also help those who suffer from chronic pain.
“Psychosocial factors are not peripheral to someone’s sense of chronic pain; they are central,” Baumgartner says. “Connecting with people and seeking out positive, healthy connections within your social environment is critical.”