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Scientists unlock mystery of 'sympathy pain': when we feel somebody else getting hurt

Some people are so good at imagining other people’s pain that they physically feel it themselves – and it’s linked to the ‘phantom pain’ amputees suffer in their missing limbs.

Image: stevendepolo via Flickr

MANY PEOPLE WHO have lost a limb experience ‘phantom pain’ in their missing arm or leg – and this can be triggered by seeing others injured. Using brain imaging equipment, neuroscientists have now begun to find out why.

The phenomenon, known as ‘synaesthetic pain’, is sparked by seeing or imagining other people getting hurt and is especially common among amputees, the New Scientist reports.

“When I hear my husband’s power tools, or see a knife, I often get a sharp pain through my phantom leg,” says Jane Barrett, who has experienced synaesthetic pain since losing her leg in a motorcycle accident.

Researchers investigating the condition showed a group of people images of hands and feet in potentially painful situations. They found that amputees who suffer from synaesthetic pain showed heightened activity in an area of the brain called the “mirror neuron system”, which is thought to help us process other peoples’ actions. The scientists concluded that the trauma of having a limb amputated could make people physically more sensitive to pain felt by others.

For more information read this story by Helen Thomson in the New Scientist >

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Michael Freeman

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