Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with altered pain perception, namely increased pain threshold and higher pain response. While pain consists of physiological and affective components, affective components are often overlooked. Similar patterns of increased threshold-high response in PTSD were shown in response to emotional stimuli, i.e., emotional numbing. As both emotional numbing and pain processing are modulated by the amygdala, we aimed to examine whether individuals diagnosed with PTSD show lower amygdala activation to pain compared with combat controls, and whether the amygdala responses to pain correlates with emotional numbing. To do so, two independent samples of veterans (original study: 44 total (20 PTSD); conceptual replication study: 40 total (20 PTSD)) underwent threat conditioning, where a conditioned stimulus (CS+; visual stimulus) was paired with an unconditioned stimulus (US; electric-shock). We contrasted the amygdala activity to the CS + US pairing with the CS+ presented alone and correlated it with emotional numbing severity. In both samples, the PTSD group showed a robust reduction in amygdala reactivity to shock compared to the Combat Controls group. Furthermore, amygdala activation was negatively correlated with emotional numbing severity. These patterns were unique to the amygdala, and did not appear in comparison to a control region, the insula, a pivotal region for the processing of pain. To conclude, amygdala response to pain is lower in individuals with PTSD, and is associated with emotional numbing symptoms. Lower amygdala reactivity to mild pain may contribute to the “all-or-none” reaction to stressful situations often observed in PTSD.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Psychiatry and Mental health