What can we learn from pain and the color red? It’s not so much about this specific color, as it is about context; and, how the context of a situation can change how we experience pain.
What do you think of when you imagine red?
Heat, danger, fire, etc.
What about when you imaging blue?
Cold, calm, water, etc.
When you go to turn on a faucet or the shower, blue means cold, red means hot… right? This is done deliberately because of the associations made with those colors, and the likelihood that people will turn the faucet in the correct direction pending their ability to see those colors.
An interesting experiment was conducted in which a very cold piece of metal was put in people’s hands. While people touched this piece of metal, they saw a blue light. They weren’t told anything about this light, but the timing was such that they saw blue at the same time that they touched this cold object. Afterwards, they were asked to rate the pain they felt out of 10.
This was repeated with the same people, and the same cold piece of metal; however, this time a red light was displayed vs. blue. Again, they were asked to rate pain out of 10. What do you think happened?
While some people reported no difference, many of the individuals reported a higher rating of pain when the red light shone despite the metal object being exactly the same. It was even as significant as some people reporting no pain with the blue light, and 8 out of 10 with the red light!
So, what? It doesn’t seem like your back or knee pain is related to the color of lights around you, right?
Maybe. BUT it is largely related to context and how we perceive that context. This experiment showed us that the only thing that needed to change in order to increase someone’s perceived pain was the color of the light – the context!
This is a hugely important factor when dealing with pain. Especially pain which has been around for a long time. The cool part? We can often change or have some amount of control over our context… we can definitely control a lot of the thoughts and beliefs we tell ourselves which is where a lot of this starts! (i.e., the belief that red = hot)
How might context be affecting your pain experience? Is some of this in control?
If you’re feeling lost about how to begin managing your pain or injury and getting back to what you love, head to the Talk with a PT page on our website!
Elle Carlson, PT, DPT