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Photo of a Loved One Reduces Pain

Study Suggests a Pain Relief Technique That Doesn't Require Medicine
By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 20, 2009 -- Forget aspirin and ibuprofen. A new pain reliever is decidedly less medical: a photo of a loved one.

A new study shows that just looking at a picture of a loved one can help reduce pain. Holding a loved one's hand also helps reduce pain.

The study included 25 women, mostly students at UCLA, who had been in good relationships with their boyfriends for at least six months. The women received heat stimuli to the forearm. Then they reported their pain levels while looking at pictures of their boyfriends, while looking at a picture of stranger, and while looking at a picture of a chair.

They also received stimuli and reported pain levels while holding hands with their boyfriends, while holding hands with a stranger, and while holding a squeeze ball.

Sarah Master, PhD and colleagues from the UCLA department of psychology found that the boyfriends' "presence" -- whether holding their hands or just seeing their photos -- reduced the participants' pain ratings.

"This changes our notion of how social support influences people," study co-researcher Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and director of UCLA's Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, says in a news release. "Typically, we think that in order for social support to make us feel good, it has to be the kind of support that is very responsive to our emotional needs. Here, however, we are seeing that just a photo of one's significant other can have the same effect."

The researchers offer a bit of practical advice: If your loved one can't be with you when you are going through a painful experience, try bringing his or her picture along.

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