Massage therapists are known to be generally warm and personable—and new research shows this could impact a massage client’s pain sensitivity.

The nature of a social interaction—whether warm or indifferent—has the ability to influence an individual’s sensitivity to physical pain, according to the study results.

The University of Toronto researchers who conducted the study believe the discovery could have significant clinical implications for health professional-client relationships and individuals’ general well being.

In the study, healthy participants rated the intensity and unpleasantness of painful stimuli before and after engaging in a structured interaction with a trained actor who was instructed to be either warm and friendly or indifferent throughout the exchange, according to a university press release.

Participants who experienced the indifferent social exchange reported less sensitivity to pain after the interaction when compared to that measured before the exchange. Participants exposed to the positive social interaction, however, exhibited no change in pain sensitivity.

“While the analgesic effect resulting from a socially disconnecting event might seem like a good thing, we know from a great deal of research in animals and humans that social threats provoke the well-known fight-or-flight stress response, of which pain inhibition is a typical component,” said Terry Borsook, a Ph.D. student in the university’s department of psychology and the study author.

Although many studies have shown the impact of inadequate social connectedness on numerous health outcomes, this is among the first studies to show in humans that the perception of physical pain can be instantly impacted by the type of social experience one has, Borsook added, and said the results suggest that social relationships may be of such critical importance to human health and well-being that even a mild threat of disconnection can be stressful.

“Health practitioners who are aloof, lack understanding, or are generally unresponsive to patients may provoke an analgesic response resulting in underestimated reports of pain, with insufficient pain control measures being a possible consequence,” Borsook said.

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