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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter July 1, 2017

The disruptive effects of pain on multitasking in a virtual errands task

David J. Moore and Anna S. Law


Background and aims

Pain is known to have a disruptive effect on cognitive performance, but prior studies have used highly constrained laboratory tasks that lack ecological validity. In everyday life people are required to complete more complex sets of tasks, prioritising task completion and recalling lists of tasks which need to be completed, and these tasks continue to be attempted during episodes or states of pain. The present study therefore examined the impact of thermal induced pain on a simulated errand task.


Fifty-five healthy adults (36 female) performed the Edinburgh Virtual Errands Task (EVET) either during a painful thermal sensation or with no concurrent pain. Participants also completed the Experience of Cognitive Intrusion of Pain (ECIP) questionnaire to measure their self-reported cognitive impact of pain in general life.


Participants who completed the EVET task in pain and who self-reported high intrusion of pain made significantly more errors than those who reported lower intrusion on the ECIP.


Findings here support the growing literature that suggests that pain has a significant impact on cognitive performance. Furthermore, these findings support the developing literature suggesting that this relationship is complex when considering real world cognition, and that self-report on the ECIP relates well to performance on a task designed to reflect the complexities of everyday living.


If extrapolated to chronic pain populations, these data suggest that pain during complex multitasking performance may have a significant impact on the number of errors made. For people highly vulnerable to cognitive intrusion by pain, this may result in errors such as selecting the wrong location or item to perform tasks, or forgetting to perform these tasks at the correct time. If these findings are shown to extend to chronic pain populations then occupational support to manage complex task performance, using for example diaries/electronic reminders, may help to improve everyday abilities.

DOI of refers to article:

Research Centre for Brain and Behaviour, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool L3 3AF, UK.

  1. Ethical issues: All participants gave full informed consent to participate in this research and this research received ethical approval from the Liverpool John Moores University Research Ethics Committee (REF: 15/NSP/001).

  2. Conflict of interest: The authors have no conflict of interest in producing this manuscript.


The authors would like to thank Samra Anjum for her assistance with data collection during this research. No funding was given for this research.


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Received: 2016-08-26
Revised: 2017-02-07
Accepted: 2017-02-21
Published Online: 2017-07-01
Published in Print: 2017-07-01

© 2017 Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain