Friends may be better than morphine at killing pain, study suggests
Getting together regularly with friends is not just great for your emotional wellbeing; new research suggests it may also make you better able to tolerate pain.
A team led by Katerina Johnson, a doctoral student in the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology Researchers made the finding, with Johnson saying it may all come down to endorphins.
“Endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers. Studies have shown they’re more powerful than morphine if you consider them at the same dose,” she told CTV News Channel Thursday.
Endorphins are known to promote social bonding. But they work the other way as well: social interactions trigger the release of endorphins which then bind to opioid receptors in the brain and produce positive emotions. That’s the process that gives us those good feelings we get from seeing our friends.
To test whether people who had large groups of friends were also better at tolerating pain, Johnson’s team recruited 101 young adults between the ages of 18 and 34.
Each person was asked to fill out questionnaires that quizzed them on the number of friends they were in contact with once a week and those they were in touch with around once a month.
They were also asked about their daily stress and their tendency to extroversion and “agreeableness” – meaning whether they were generally happy people. As well, the researchers asked them about their physical fitness,
“One of the things we had to consider was that maybe fitter individuals are better in tests of muscular pain, so we took that into account in our analysis,” Johnson said.
They then asked the volunteers to do a wall sit test in which they had to squat against a wall with knees at a 90-degree angle and a straight back. The volunteers were asked to hold the uncomfortable position for as long as possible.
People with larger social networks, including people they saw only once a month, tended to higher pain tolerance, the research team reports in the latest issue of Nature. Johnson said it may be that having many friends revs up the endorphin system.
“People who interact more and have this higher endorphin activity in the brain may be less sensitive to pain,” she said.
The volunteers’ “agreeableness” score had no effect on their pain tolerance; what was more predictive of their pain tolerance was their social network size.
The researchers also found that those who reported higher stress levels tended to have smaller social networks. That may be because larger social networks help people to manage stress better. Or it may be that stress or its causes mean people have less time for social activity, shrinking their network.
Those who were more physically fit also tended to have smaller social networks. That might simply be because fit individuals spend time exercising and have less time to see their friends. Or it could be that these people are aware that physical activity promotes endorphin release, so they are using exercise as an alternative means to get an endorphin rush.
Johnson says the findings add to the research suggesting the powerful effect of friendship on our emotional and physical wellbeing.
“Studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor determining how long we live,” she said in a statement.