Love really is a drug – and it can work a treat with pain relief

"Love is a smoke made by the fume of sighs," wrote William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Love is also an effective pain killer as good as many of the strongest drugs, scientists have found.

For all the many musings in literature on the nature of love, nobody has quite realised its potential as an analgesic medicine until now, with a study showing that a romantic affair makes physical pain more bearable.

Scientists believe that the findings make sense because pain control and the intense feelings of being newly in love appear to be centred on similar regions of the brain.

The study, carried out on love-struck American students, found that the euphoria of the intense emotional attachment that comes with a new romance can override discomfort generated by a physically painful stimulus, such as touching something hot.

"It turns out that the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain," said Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook, who carried out the study with colleagues from Stanford University in California.

"When thinking about your beloved, there is intense activation in the reward area of the brain – the same area that lights up when you take cocaine, the same area that lights up when you win a lot of money," said Professor Aron, who has been studying the scientific nature of love for 30 years.

The students were asked to look at photographs of friends and their lovers while being subjected to mildly painful shocks to their hand when lying in a brain scanner. They were also asked to perform distraction tests, which are known to reduce the feelings of pain. Concentrating on a loved one proved equally good at minimising pain, but interestingly, the brain scanner revealed that the two kinds of pain relief were controlled by different nerve pathways in the brain, according to the findings published in the online journal PlosOne.

Pain relief by distraction was associated with the "higher" areas of the brain in the outer cortex, while pain relief by love was linked with deeper, more primitive regions of the brain.

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