We use our cellphones for many things, but pain relief is not usually one of them. It appears, however, that text messaging may significantly reduce a patient’s pain and anxiety while under the knife.
In a new study in the journal Pain Medicine, individuals who texted a friend or stranger during a minor surgical procedure required significantly less pain medication than those who did not.
“The findings have a lot of practical applications,” says Jamie Guillory, a health researcher at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute in North Carolina, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at Cornell University in New York.
“They should be considered by clinicians thinking of potential ways to help people manage stressful or anxiety-provoking situations in a way that is low-involvement for medical staff and basically cost-free.” Those could include situations such as radiology scans or treatment procedures when a loved one cannot be physically present.
Past studies have found that distraction techniques, such as listening to music, playing video games, or watching a movie, can reduce the amounts of pain medication needed during medical procedures. “We wanted to see if social support works better than distraction techniques,” says Guillory.
She and colleagues invited 98 patients undergoing a minor surgery, done under a local anesthetic from the waist down, to participate in a study without telling them its purpose. The patients were each assigned one of four tasks: playing the mobile phone game Angry Birds (a distraction technique), texting with a loved one, texting with a stranger, or no intervention. Trained anesthesiologists recorded the amounts of supplemental pain medication each patient required.
Guillory expected the strongest effect to occur while texting with a loved one, but that wasn’t the case: playing a game or texting a loved one did reduce the amount of medication needed, compared to doing nothing, but those who texted with a stranger saw the best results, requiring only one-sixth of the pain medication as individuals with no intervention.
That may be because the conversations with strangers — designed to be a sort of “get to know you” exchange — included more positive emotion words and self-affirming topics than conversations with loved ones, which tended to be centered on the surgery and focus on the body and negative emotions.
If one were to try to use this technique to alleviate pain during surgery, Guillory suggests being sure you are having an emotionally positive text conversation with your loved one. “Don’t focus on their surgery,” she says. “Make it emotionally positive.”