Texting Pain Away—Pain Relief at Your Fingertips

New study finds texting can help you recover faster after minor surgery, with less pain!

Texting is one of the easiest and accepted forms of communication these days—and certainly one of the most common. Think about all the people you may text in just one day. You may text your spouse to check in on dinner plans. You might text your teenage son or daughter to find out about what time an after-school sporting event begins. Maybe you’ll text a friend to plan a night out. Perhaps you’ll even text a colleague to inform them of a deadline. 

We text to feel and stay connected: to get a quick answer, share a quick story, ask a quick question—or just to say “hi.” However, a new study has found that there may be some health benefits associated with texting, too.

Imagine you are about to undergo a minor surgical procedure, such as have a mole removed from your back. You may be anxious about the procedure, possible pain, recovery, or scarring. Would you rather be alone with your thoughts during the surgery, or, would you want to have someone to talk to during the procedure?

The new study suggests that patients who were texting through the procedure, had less pain and needed a smaller dose of additional pain medication than those who didn’t text. But who you text also mattered—texting a stranger provided more pain relief than texting a friend or family member.

The study author, Jeffrey T. Hancock, PhD, Chair of the Information Science Department at Cornell University, says the idea for the study came about when his brother-in-law, an anesthesiologist, visited Hancock’s lab, where they were studying whether there are any positive psychological benefits that come through communicating through technology.

“My brother-in-law asked if it’s feasible to study whether positive benefits from communicating through technology could apply to surgery,” Dr. Hancock said.

How Texting Reduces Pain

The research team, which included Cornell colleague Jamie E. Guillory PhD, and McGill University researchers Christopher Woodruff, MD, and Jeffrey Keilman, MD, tracked four groups of patients. One group received standard treatment without access to a mobile phone; a second group used a mobile phone to play the game Angry Birds; a third group used a mobile phone to text with a close friend or family member; and a fourth group was invited to text with a research assistant who conducted “getting to know you” conversations.

The study included 98 patients who underwent minor surgical procedures. Neither the patients, the research assistant who texted nor nine of the 10 treating anesthesiologists (except for Dr. Woodruff) knew the nature of the research.

The researchers found patients who didn’t use mobile phones during surgery were almost twice as likely to receive supplemental pain relief with the opioid pain reliever fentanyl as those who played Angry Birds before and during the procedure. Patients not using mobile phones were more than four times as likely to receive additional fentanyl as those who texted a friend or family member, and more than six times as likely as those who texted a stranger to receive additional fentanyl.

Strangers Make Good Pain Fellows

Dr. Hancock said he was initially surprised that texting a stranger would provide more pain relief than texting a friend or family member. But once the team analyzed the language of the texts of the two groups allowed to text during their surgeries, they saw friends and families texted more about biology, the body, and negative emotions. In contrast, the texts with the stranger included more words that expressed positive emotions.

“The loved ones were producing a lot of anxiety. They were worried and were focusing on the surgery,” Dr. Hancock said. Certainly a Mom or Dad may express concern, and ask questions about how the patient is doing, how the patient is feeling—and that type of conversation may keep the patient engaged in every detail of the procedure. “The stranger talked more about self-affirming topics, such as their favorite movie, what they do for a living, and their family, and less about the surgery.”

Texting is More Than a Distraction

Previous research has found that playing video games can reduce pain in injured children by distracting them, Dr. Hancock noted. He wanted to see whether texting provides more than a distraction, by adding a social component. By comparing hand-held games with texting, the researchers found that texting is indeed providing more than simply a distraction. “Interacting with another person really provides psychological benefit that can be measured in terms of micrograms of opioids that are needed,” Dr. Hancock said. In other words, the human connection we make when texting can help us feel less physical pain.

In Pain Medicine, the researchers noted that “text-based communication may allow for the analgesic-sparing benefits of social support to be introduced to other clinical settings where this type of support is not otherwise available."

Dr. Hancock hopes to follow up this study with research that examines whether texting during surgery can affect recovery times. “We have a real distinct possibility of improving outcomes,” he said. “By texting, people feel they’re not alone in the room. It’s a great way to remain connected and supported during what can be a scary and anxiety-producing experience, with technology they already have.”

So if you need to schedule a minor surgical procedure—consider bringing your phone, and get ready to text.

Updated on: 05/22/15
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