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Crossing Your Fingers Could Reduce Pain (No Lie)

Researchers find the spatial arrangement of our digits affects the sensations they feel

(Innocenti and Lee/Image Source/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Crossing your fingers might not help you win the lotto, but this simple action does have a seemingly magic power. A new study found that crisscrossing a finger over or under the others affected how much pain subjects felt.

The perception of pain is still a largely mysterious field: how much pain one feels is a highly individual phenomenon, determined by physiological, psychological and environmental factors that are not well understood. The study, from researchers at University College London (UCL), suggests that the physical arrangement of the painful parts of our body, relative to the parts that are not in pain, could affect what we feel, too. In other words, the person's overall body position seems to influence how pain signals are sent to the brain.

In the study, the researchers simulated painful sensations in their subjects' middle fingers. The subjects’ fingers were not actually put in harm's way: the researchers used the “thermal grill illusion,” a pattern of warm and cold temperatures that does not result in tissue damage. It does, however, produce a burning sensation—but when the middle finger was crossed over the index finger, this ache was reduced.

The implications? Study author Patrick Haggard explains:

Interactions like these may contribute to the astonishing variability of pain. Many people suffer from chronic pain, and the level of pain experienced can be higher than would be expected from actual tissue damage. Our research is basic laboratory science, but it raises the interesting possibility that pain levels could be manipulated by applying additional stimuli, and by moving one part of the body relative to others. Changing the spatial pattern of interacting inputs could have an effect on the brain pathways that underlie perception.

UCL pain specialist Giandomenico Iannetti told the Guardian that, essentially, this is because our brains are good at playing tricks on us. “Perceptions are constructed in the brain with the objective of seeing the world around us,” he said. “This is why sometimes perceptions do not accurately reflect sensory input. Pain is a perception often only loosely related to the actual noxious sensory input.” In time, this line of research could lead to the development of better, simple, non-invasive management strategies that don't rely on medication—fingers crossed.

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