December 22, 2009 / 5:06 AM / 9 years ago

Many people who say "I feel your pain" really do

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Ever literally felt somebody else’s pain? You’re not alone, with new research showing some people do have a physical reaction to others’ injuries.

A student receives a H1N1 vaccine injection at a hospital in Suining, Sichuan province November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

British researchers used brain-imaging technology to show that people who say they feel the pain of others have heightened activity in pain-sensing brain regions when they see someone else being hurt.

For the study, the researchers exposed 108 college students to images of painful situations, ranging from athletes suffering sports injuries and patients receiving an injection.

Nearly a third said that, for at least one image, they not only had an emotional reaction, but also fleetingly felt pain in the same site as the injury in the image.

The researchers found that while viewing the painful images, both people who said they felt pain and those who did not showed activity in the emotional centers of the brain.

But those who said they felt pain showed greater activity in pain-related brain regions compared with the others, and as compared with their own brain responses to the emotional images.

“Patients with functional pain experience pain in the absence of an obvious disease or injury to explain their pain,” Dr. Stuart Derbyshire of the University of Birmingham, one of the researchers, told Reuters Health.

“We think this confirms that at least some people have an actual physical reaction when observing others being injured or expressing pain,” Derbyshire said.

He noted that the people who reported feeling pain also tended to say that they avoided horror movies and disturbing images on the news “so as to avoid being in pain”.

The findings were published in the December issue of the journal Pain.

Reporting by Amy Norton of Reuters Health, editing by Miral Fahmy

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