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Scandinavian Journal of Pain

Official Journal of the Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain

Editor-in-Chief: Werner, Mads

CiteScore 2018: 0.85

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.494
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.427

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Volume 16, Issue 1


Taking a break in response to pain. An experimental investigation of the effects of interruptions by pain on subsequent activity resumption

Rena Gatzounis
  • Corresponding author
  • Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102 box 3726, 3000, Leuven, Belgium
  • Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD, Maastricht, The Netherlands
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Martien G.S. Schrooten
  • Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102 box 3726, 3000, Leuven, Belgium
  • Centre for Health and Medical Psychology, Örebro University, Fakultetsgatan 1, 701 82, Örebro, Sweden
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Geert Crombez
  • Department of Experimental–Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Henri Dunantlaan 2, 9000, Ghent, Belgium
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Linda M.G. Vancleef
  • Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD, Maastricht, The Netherlands
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Johan W.S. Vlaeyen
  • Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102 box 3726, 3000, Leuven, Belgium
  • Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD, Maastricht, The Netherlands
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2017-07-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2017.02.008


Background and aims

Interrupting ongoing activities with the intention to resume them again later is a natural response to pain. However, such interruptions might have negative consequences for the subsequent resumption and performance of the interrupted activity. Activity interruptions by pain may be more impairing than interruptions by non-painful stimuli, and also be subjectively experienced as such. These effects might be more pronounced in people high in pain catastrophizing. These hypotheses were investigated in two experiments.


In Experiment 1, healthy volunteers (n = 24) performed an ongoing task requiring a sequence of joystick movements. Occasionally, they received either a painful electrocutaneous or a non-painful vibrotactile stimulus, followed by suspension of the ongoing task and temporary engagement in a different task (interruption task). After performing the interruption task for 30 s, participants resumed the ongoing task. As the ongoing task of Experiment 1 was rather simple, Experiment 2 (n = 30) included a modified, somewhat more complex version of the task, in order to examine the effects of activity interruptions by pain.


Participants made more errors and were slower to initiate movements (Experiment 1 & 2) and to complete movements (Experiment 2) when they resumed the ongoing task after an interruption, indicating that interruptions impaired subsequent performance. However, these impairments were not larger when the interruption was prompted by painful than by non-painful stimulation. Pain catastrophizing did not influence the results.


Results indicate that activity interruptions by pain have negative consequences for the performance of an activity upon its resumption, but not more so than interruptions by non-painful stimuli. Potential explanations and avenues for future research are discussed.


Interrupting ongoing activities is a common response to pain. In two experiments using a novel paradigm we showed that activity interruptions by pain impair subsequent activity resumption and performance. However, this effect seems to not be specific to pain.

Keywords: Activity interruption; Task interruption; (chronic) Pain; Task performance; Task resumption; Task switch


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About the article

Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, box 3726, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium. Fax: +3216326144.

Received: 2016-11-25

Revised: 2017-02-11

Accepted: 2017-02-21

Published Online: 2017-07-01

Published in Print: 2017-07-01

Ethical issues: The studies described in the present manuscript were approved by the appropriate Ethical Boards (Experiment 1: Ethical Review Committee Psychology and Neuroscience (ERCPN) of Maastricht University, study number: ECP-127 11_04_2013; Experiment 2: Social and Societal Ethics Committee and Medical Ethics Committee of the University of Leuven, study number: ML 10825). Participants of both studies provided informed consent prior to participation.

Conflict of interest: The authors have no conflict of interest to report. All authors have discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Funding sources: The conductance of these studies and preparation of the manuscript were supported by a PhD “Aspirant” grant (PSG-C5007-Asp/12) funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders, Belgium (FWO Vlaanderen).

Citation Information: Scandinavian Journal of Pain, Volume 16, Issue 1, Pages 52–60, ISSN (Online) 1877-8879, ISSN (Print) 1877-8860, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2017.02.008.

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