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Papers of the Week

Papers: 30 Jul 2022 - 5 Aug 2022

2022 Jul 31

J Pain

To calibrate or not to calibrate? A methodological dilemma in experimental pain research.


Adamczyk WM, Szikszay TM, Nahman-Averbuch H, Skalski J, Nastaj J, Gouverneur P, Luedtke K
J Pain. 2022 Jul 31.
PMID: 35918020.


To calibrate or not to calibrate? This question is raised by almost everyone designing an experimental pain study with supra-threshold stimulation. The dilemma is whether to individualize stimulus intensity to the pain threshold / supra-threshold pain level of each participant or whether to provide the noxious stimulus at a fixed intensity so that everyone receives the identical input. Each approach has unique pros and cons which need to be considered to i) accurately design an experiment, ii) enhance statistical inference in the given data and, iii) reduce bias and the influence of confounding factors in the individual study e.g., body composition, differences in energy absorption and previous experience. Individualization requires calibration, a procedure already irritating the pain system but allowing to match the pain level across individuals. It leads to a higher variability of the stimulus intensity, thereby influencing the encoding of "noxiousness" reaching the central nervous system. Results might be less influenced by statistical phenomena such as ceiling/floor effects and the approach does not seem to rise ethical concerns. On the other hand, applying a fixed (standardized) intensity reduces the problem of intensity encoding leading to a large between-subjects variability in pain responses. Fixed stimulation intensities do not require pre-exposure. It can be proposed that one method is not preferable over another, however the choice depends on the study aim and the desired level of external validity. This paper discusses considerations for choosing the best approach for experimental pain studies and provides recommendations for different study designs.