Biology

Pain and hunger

Okay, here’s something I’ve been wondering: does your sense of pain vary based on how hungry you are? Any ideas? — Alex Chan

I had no gut instinct on this, so I hit Google and immediately found a mouse study in Cell that suggests the answer may be yes, for some types of pain: there was a study in mice where they were deprived of food for 24 hours and exposed to three types of pain trigger. The first one they refer to as inflammatory: this involves a corrosive chemical being applied to the paws of participating mice. The response to the pain was measured in terms of paw-licking, and the starving mice licked their paws less often and for less time than mice who were well fed.

However, hunger didn’t affect the response to acute types of pain including a painful injection and exposure to a hotplate. Also, this is a study in mice, so take it with a grain of salt for how much it affects humans. Their reasoning is sound, though: hunger has an enormous impact on survival, so it is adaptive to numb your response to pain when you are hungry in order to enable you to continue moving and focus on finding food.

They also suggest a mechanism: there are hunger-sensitive pain-related neurons in mice which are inhibited when they are in pain (i.e. only transmit pain when the animal is not hungry). So that seems pretty suggestive to me.

They have links to a few other studies early in the discussion section of the article that may have more info! For example, one in Physiological Psychology which found evidence of some transient reduction of acute pains when animals were deprived of food. However, the Cell article does say that hunger has been found to impact pain in both directions, so the evidence is probably mixed or highly situation-specific (and none of what I saw was based on human subjects).

All in all, I would say your instinct is likely to have some basis in fact and hunger is likely to affect your experience of pain (though of course, many other things do as well)!

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