New mind-body research indicates mental distractions make pain easier to take, and those pain-relieving effects aren’t just in your head.

The findings based on high-resolution spinal fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) as people experienced painful levels of heat show that mental distractions actually inhibit the response to incoming pain signals at the earliest stage of central pain processing.

“The results demonstrate that this phenomenon is not just a psychological phenomenon, but an active neuronal mechanism reducing the amount of pain signals ascending from the spinal cord to higher-order brain regions,” said Christian Sprenger of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.

Those effects involve endogenous opioids, which are naturally produced by the brain and play a key role in the relief of pain, the new evidence shows.

The research was published online in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

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