July 2, 2020

Love and Pain

Is there a connection?

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q:My husband’s job is out of state. This last time he was gone I was home alone for four weeks because of  the pandemic. I have arthritis and fibromyalgia, and whenever my husband’s not here, my pain gets worse. This is very distressing to my husband, and he worries about me. Could this just be all in my mind?

A:We sympathize with you and your husband. Chronic pain affects more than 75 million Americans—more people than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. It can last for months or years and is a major source of disability. Many pain sufferers and their spouses have similar questions but may never ask them. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to help, even in some small way, by easing the minds of you and your husband.

Pain is a complex phenomenon. Joint and tissue inflammation and damage induce painful stimuli in arthritis. With fibromyalgia, it appears that repeated nerve stimulation causes the brains of affected individuals to abnormally increase the levels of certain chemicals that signal pain (neuro­transmitters). Additionally, the brain seems to become sensitized to the pain stimuli from the muscles and soft tissues of the body and can overreact to pain signals.

Since all feeling, even pain, is perceived in the mind, you can say that what you experience is in your mind; but because of the conditions you describe, you have a physical basis for pain. Yet the amount of pain perceived by anyone is governed not only by the amount of tissue damage or inflammation but also by emotional and psychological factors. This is where your husband’s presence or absence may be affecting you.

Here are some interesting facts. When a loved one holds a pain sufferer’s hand or strokes an arm, pain perception typically decreases. The utterance of supportive, sympathetic words by a romantic partner or caring confidant has an analgesic effect. The mere presence of a loved one reduces the perception of pain even without touch or the exchange of sympathetic or supportive words.

Even more incredible, looking at a picture of one’s romantic partner can increase tolerance of moderate pain by 40 percent above that of looking at a picture of a casual acquaintance. So your ability to tolerate pain may really be less when your husband isn’t there or when you’re alone, and can improve when he comes home and you have the pleasure of his company. Romantic love activates the brain’s dopamine system, so that even looking at a photo of your husband may cause your brain systems to release natural painkillers. Of course, the quality of your relationship is important; the more empathetic the relationship, the lower the pain perception.

So loneliness and social isolation can provoke emotional pain and amplify physical pain. We advise visual and audio connection with your husband while he’s away. Laughing, singing, and praying together even at a distance can help. Other caring connections are also healthy. God made us for togetherness, even at a distance.

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.