Pain has advantages for our immediate safety, but it also disrupts our ability to perform other tasks that require attention. Multiple previous studies have documented detrimental effects of pain on attention, but the specific nature of the effects is inconsistent. This may be because different studies investigate different types of pain, such as laboratory-induced thermal pain, menstrual pain, or headache. Here, we replicated a study investigating the effect of headache on attention, and extended it by including two additional attention tasks, a broader sample, and measures of affect and pain cognitions. We aimed to see whether the effects of the same type of pain on the same attention tasks would be consistent across studies.
Participants performed five complex attention tasks and a choice reaction time task with and without a naturally occurring headache.
Participants were slower to respond to five of the six attention tasks, and this could be attributed to a slowing in basic processing speed as measured by the choice reaction time task. Participants were also less accurate on a cued switching task.
The pattern of disruption found here, mainly a dampening of processing speed, is again different to previous findings. This suggests that the effect of pain on attention appears to be dynamic, even within a given type of pain. While we can be confident that pain does disrupt attention, we cannot yet predict the specific nature of disruption in any given case.