Love may be as good as morphine
October 13th, 2010
05:01 PM ET

Love may be as good as morphine

That rush of good feelings you have in the first few months of being in love don't just put you in a better mood; love may actually be a painkiller, researchers suggest in a new study in the journal PLoS ONE.

"Finding pleasure in activities, and with the one you’re with, can have multiple benefits, including reducing your pain," said senior author Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of the Division of Pain Management at Stanford University School of Medicine.

The study looked at 15 undergraduates – both men and women – between ages 19 and 21, all of whom were in the "early phases of passionate love," having been in a relationship anywhere from a few months to a year. This is a small sample size, but not unusual for a study involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Participants were asked to bring in photos of their beloved and an acquaintance who was equally attractive. While viewing these photos, a computer-controlled stimulator made them feel pain in the palm of their hand that felt akin to burning oneself on a hot pan, but in a safe way and without causing any actual damage, Mackey said. They were also asked to answer distracting questions while the pain was applied. The fMRI scanner allowed researchers to examine what brain systems were involved during each condition.

The magnitude of pain relief when participants thought about their beloved was comparable to morphine and other clinical painkillers, Mackey said. However, he cautioned that this is not a study about chronic pain, merely pain applied for 30 seconds at a time in an artificial setting.

The results suggest that thinking about your beloved and having a non-love-related distraction lower the perception of pain, but the love effect involves entirely different brain systems, Mackey said. This speaks to the complexity of the human brain, he said.

Distraction involves high level cortical systems that are involved with conducting tasks, Mackey said. Love, on the other hand, involves systems dependent on dopamine, a brain chemical that causes us to feel good and crave things. The dopamine rush also happens upon eating a piece of chocolate, or, in more extreme forms, taking a hit of cocaine or heroin. Drugs that directly engage this brain chemical tend to be highly addictive, he said.

Other recent research also has described love as an addiction. A Journal of Neurophysiology study suggested that love involves the same area of the brain associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction; that's one example of recent findings on the science of love.

Mackey also suspects there is some effect of pain heightening in those who have recently experienced a breakup of some kind, having seen increases in pain among patients who went through divorces. But that was not part of this study.

Future research in this area might additionally explore whether the affection of people who have been in committed relationships for much longer, perhaps decades, can also relieve pain. Other areas to explore are the brain systems that are involved when it comes to homosexual love, the bond between mother and child, and platonic friendships, Mackey said.

"Trying to maintain that spark in one’s relationship and that passion, engaging those reward systems, may very well work the same way as being in that early phase of love," he said.

soundoff (95 Responses)
  1. Charles (UK )

    Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
    To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire!
    Would not we shatter it to bits-and then
    Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

    October 15, 2010 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Marta

    This must be a faulty study. Similar to the "runner's high" (due to endorphins). Being in love definitely goes away after a while and then , like others suggested, you're stuck with a spouse you don't care for anymore.
    As for the "runner's high"- it's exhaustion and the stress response kicks in to protect the body from more harm. In other words, stop running.

    October 17, 2010 at 06:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Bugsy

    Love that morphine.

    October 21, 2010 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. wizegrafixx

    I agree Love is a powerful sedative. I also agree Love is also battlefield after a few years!

    October 23, 2010 at 06:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. David Garrard

    It is true that love is a powerful motivation but does not reverse the pain suffered by people with chronic illness, for that you use painkillers such as Vicodin, hydrocodone, norco, which are the most commonly prescribed by doctors, but findrxonline say that care must be taken because side effects are very dangerous.

    November 3, 2010 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Marcus Easley

    Love is a feeling very good so that helps ease the pain but not enough also required painkillers such as Vicodin, according to Findrxonline.

    November 3, 2010 at 12:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Florida Health News and Tips

    Love is certainly a pain killer as shown by recent research. I wrote about it in a blog article at Florida Health Info but not as good as strong painkillers like morphine. It also does not seem to last very long once the euphoric feelings of being in love subside. But then again just looking at a picture of a loved one in one study showed analgesic benefit better than distraction.

    March 15, 2011 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
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