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Slow brushing reduces heat pain in humans

Journal article
Authors Jaquette Liljencrantz
I. Strigo
D. M. Ellingsen
H. H. Kramer
Linda Lundblad
S. S. Nagi
Siri Leknes
Håkan Olausson
Published in European Journal of Pain
Volume 21
Issue 7
Pages 1173-1185
ISSN 1090-3801
Publication year 2017
Published at Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology
Pages 1173-1185
Language en
Keywords unmyelinated tactile afferents, low-force monofilaments, human hairy, skin, c fibers, flutter-vibration, induced analgesia, opioid analgesia, insular cortex, threshold, touch, Anesthesiology, Neurosciences & Neurology
Subject categories Neuroscience


Background: C-tactile (CT) afferents are unmyelinated low-threshold mechanoreceptors optimized for signalling affective, gentle touch. In three separate psychophysical experiments, we examined the contribution of CT afferents to pain modulation. Methods: In total, 44 healthy volunteers experienced heat pain and CT optimal (slow brushing) and CT sub-optimal (fast brushing or vibration) stimuli. Three different experimental paradigms were used: Concurrent application of heat pain and tactile (slow brushing or vibration) stimulation; Slow brushing, applied for variable duration and intervals, preceding heat pain; Slow versus fast brushing preceding heat pain. Results: Slow brushing was effective in reducing pain, whereas fast brushing or vibration was not. The reduction in pain was significant not only when the CT optimal touch was applied simultaneously with the painful stimulus but also when the two stimuli were separated in time. For subsequent stimulation, the pain reduction was more pronounced for a shorter time interval between brushing and pain. Likewise, the effect was more robust when pain was preceded by a longer duration of brush stimulation. Strong CT-related pain reduction was associated with low anxiety and high calmness scores obtained by a state anxiety questionnaire. Conclusions: Slow brushing - optimal for CT activation - is effective in reducing pain from cutaneous heating. The precise mechanisms for the pain relief are as yet unknown but possible mechanisms include inhibition of nociceptive projection neurons at the level of the dorsal horn as well as analgesia through cortical mechanisms.

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