Do you recall learning about classical conditioning and about Pavlov’s dogs in your psych101 course? You may be asking yourself, “What does classical conditioning or dogs salivating when they hear a bell ring have anything to do with me as a physio?”

Really smart pain researchers are now investigating whether classical conditioning has a role to play in pain thresholds. Here is a perhaps oversimplified explanation of how they do these experiments.

Step 1:  A healthy volunteer receives either a painful or a non-painful electrocutaneous stimulus to a part of their body (e.g., low back), and they are asked to rate their pain.

Step 2: They then receive non-painful vibrotactile stimulus that is repeatedly paired with either the painful or the non-painful stimulus.

Step 3: At random, painful or non-painful electrocutaneous stimuli are simultaneously delivered together with the non-painful vibrotactile stimulus.

Basic Result: Stimuli were more likely to be rated as painful when they were paired with the conditioned stimuli; which means that the judgement of an event being painful or non-painful can be influenced by classical conditioning. Could that be one explanation for the maintenance of persistent pain?


1. Traxler J, et al Modulating pain thresholds through classical conditioning. PeerJ. 2019 Mar 8;7:e6486.

2. Harvie DS, et al When touch predicts pain: predictive tactile cues modulate perceived intensity of painful stimulation independent of expectancy. Scand J Pain. 2016 Apr;11:11-18.

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