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Increased pain intensity is associated with greater verbal communication difficulty and increased production of speech and co-speech gestures

Rowbotham, S., Wardy, A. J., Lloyd, D. M., Wearden, A., & Holler, J. (2014). Increased pain intensity is associated with greater verbal communication difficulty and increased production of speech and co-speech gestures. PLoS One, 9(10): e110779. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110779.
Effective pain communication is essential if adequate treatment and support are to be provided. Pain communication is often multimodal, with sufferers utilising speech, nonverbal behaviours (such as facial expressions), and co-speech gestures (bodily movements, primarily of the hands and arms that accompany speech and can convey semantic information) to communicate their experience. Research suggests that the production of nonverbal pain behaviours is positively associated with pain intensity, but it is not known whether this is also the case for speech and co-speech gestures. The present study explored whether increased pain intensity is associated with greater speech and gesture production during face-to-face communication about acute, experimental pain. Participants (N = 26) were exposed to experimentally elicited pressure pain to the fingernail bed at high and low intensities and took part in video-recorded semi-structured interviews. Despite rating more intense pain as more difficult to communicate (t(25) = 2.21, p = .037), participants produced significantly longer verbal pain descriptions and more co-speech gestures in the high intensity pain condition (Words: t(25) = 3.57, p = .001; Gestures: t(25) = 3.66, p = .001). This suggests that spoken and gestural communication about pain is enhanced when pain is more intense. Thus, in addition to conveying detailed semantic information about pain, speech and co-speech gestures may provide a cue to pain intensity, with implications for the treatment and support received by pain sufferers. Future work should consider whether these findings are applicable within the context of clinical interactions about pain.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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