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Papers of the Week

Papers: 23 Dec 2023 - 29 Dec 2023

2023 Dec 23

J Pain


Rewarding approach behaviour attenuates the return of pain-related avoidance after successful extinction with response prevention.


Gatzounis R, Gelissen A, Theuerzeit D, Meulders A


After successful exposure treatment for chronic pain, pain-related fear and avoidance may return, i.e., relapse may occur. This return of fear and avoidance may be modulated by various post-treatment factors. In this study, we aimed to investigate two potential factors that may affect return of fear and avoidance, i.e. cognitive load and rewarding approach behaviour. In an operant pain-related avoidance conditioning paradigm, healthy pain-free volunteers first learned to fear and avoid an arm-reaching movement that was often paired with painful electrocutaneous stimulation (T1), by performing alternative movements that were less often (T2) or never (T3) paired with pain. During extinction with response prevention, participants were only allowed to perform T1, and pain was omitted. To model relapse, two unexpected painful stimuli were presented (i.e., reinstatement manipulation), after which participants could freely choose among the three arm-reaching movements again. During test, the Low Load group performed an additional easy digit task, whereas the High Load group performed a more cognitively demanding digit task. The Reward group performed the demanding digit task, whilst being rewarded to perform T1. Results showed that pain-related fear and avoidance returned, irrespective of cognitive load imposed. When participants were rewarded to approach T1, however, the return of avoidance, but not fear, was attenuated. Our findings suggest that engaging in rewarding activities may facilitate the maintenance of treatment outcomes, and provide additional support to the growing body of literature indicating a divergent relationship between fear and avoidance. PERSPECTIVE: Results of this experiment suggest that engaging in rewarding activities may optimize exposure treatment for chronic pain, by dampening the return of pain-related avoidance – though not of pain-related fear – after extinction.