Centre for Pain Research

How we communicate pain through body posture

Joseph Walsh, PhD Research Student

One of the most important aspects of the pain experience is how we communicate information about our pain to others around us. If we are able to effectively communicate this information, it can enable others to provide help and support, which can in turn alleviate the pain. We can communicate information in two ways; verbally and nonverbally. Verbal information is broadly anything which uses meaningful words and language to send information. Nonverbal communication is a way of sending information through actions and behaviours such as facial expressions, non-word vocalisations, and body postures.

Body postures specifically are important in pain communication as cues such as posture, gait, and actions like guarding where injury sites are protected can communicate not just the fact that we are in pain, but also specific information about that pain such as location, intensity, and type. Research in the Centre for Pain Research at Bath has so far shown that we are able to communicate pain effectively through body posture alone, in a similar way to how we can communicate emotions such as happiness and sadness. There seem to be specific actions and postural cues associated with pain, which others are able to recognise and use. Also, pain is rated by observers as being a very unpleasant and intense affective experience.

The next phase of our research is starting to look at individual differences in how we communicate pain through body posture. Specifically, there may be a difference in how men and women communicate and recognise pain. Also, a key role of nonverbal communication is that it allows us to capture the attention of others around us, facilitating further communication and encouraging helping behaviours. Our research is starting to examine how pain postures capture attention, and whether there are differences in how men and women attend to postures.