Sometimes love does feel like it should. Falling in love can act as a potent painkiller, and now scientists have figured out why: It stimulates the brain’s reward pathway, much like the rush of an addictive drug. The next question is whether better understanding of the love-pain relationship might somehow help scientists tackle chronic pain. Falling head over heels isn’t exactly something a doctor can prescribe.
“May be prescribing a little passion in one’s relationship can go a long way towards helping with one’s chronic pain — assuming it’s passion with the one you’re with,” said study co-author Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of pain management at Stanford University.Psychology professor Arthur Aron of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who studies the neurology of love has linked that euphoric phase of a fresh romance to brain regions rich in the chemical dopamine. "When people are in love, it’s similar to what they get when they take stimulants: They’re excited, have loss of appetite, sleep less and are full of energy," noted Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a dopamine expert.
For the study, fifteen love-struck students were put through some tests. They looked at either a picture of their new love or a picture of an attractive acquaintance, or were given distracting tasks such as to list sports that don’t involve balls.
Researchers touched them with a hot wand to induce moderate pain, and scanned their brains. Looking at their loved one and distraction produced equal pain relief — but the distraction worked through cognitive pathways while the romance triggered a surge in that reward pathway, the team reported. That means the brain can generate pain-controlling responses without medications that perhaps, “If we understood them better, we could trigger them,” said Volkow.
Caution: New love’s flush can fade to commitment, which doesn’t trigger the same brain response. But Aron said he recently found that doing something new and exciting with a longtime partner stirs up that old passion, “A reasonably good idea whether you are in pain or not.”