Stronger Pain Relief When Patient and Provider Demonstrate Facial Mirroring

PainRelief.com Interview with:
Dan-Mikael Ellingsen PhD
Department of Psychology, University of Oslo
Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research (NORMENT),
Division of Mental Health and Addiction
Oslo University Hospital, Oslo, Norway.

Dr. Ellingsen

PainRelief.com:  What is the background for this study?  What are the main findings?

Response: We know that the patient-clinician relationship can have an important impact on clinical outcomes, but we know relatively little about how this works. A better understanding of the behavioral, physiological, and brain mechanisms behind the patient-clinician interaction may help demystifying the therapeutic relationship and how it influences treatment outcomes.

In order to investigate the behavioral and brain mechanisms involved when patients and clinicians interact, we simultaneously recorded brain activity (using functional MRI) in clinicians and patients with chronic pain, while they underwent a pain treatment session. We also recorded and analyzed non-verbal communication – facial expressions – during the interaction. We found that when the patient and clinician had first established a level of rapport – or therapeutic alliance – through a clinical intake and consultation, they showed stronger concordance in brain activity in brain areas involved in empathy and “theory of mind” (the process of trying to understand other people’s mental states) when they engaged during treatment. We also found that in interactions where the patient and clinician showed more mirroring in facial expressions, the patient also reported higher therapeutic alliance and stronger pain relief from the treatment.