Thinking about movement hurts: The effect of motor imagery on pain and swelling in people with chronic arm pain

This study investigated whether motor imagery, in the absence of movement, increases symptoms in patients with chronic arm pain. Pain and swelling were measured before, after, and 60 minutes after 37 subjects performed a motor imagery task. Secondary variables from clinical, psychophysical, and cognitive domains were related to change in symptoms using linear regression.  Motor imagery increased pain and swelling.  Increased pain and swelling related positively to duration of symptoms and performance on a left/right judgement task that interrogated the body schema, autonomic response, catastrophic thoughts about pain, and fear of movement. 

Motor imagery increased pain and swelling in patients with chronic painful disease of the arm. The effect increased in line with the duration of symptoms and seems to be modulated by autonomic arousal and beliefs about pain and movement. The results highlight the contribution of cortical mechanisms to pain on movement, which has implications for treatment.

Arthritis & Care Research, 2008, 59(5), 623-31

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