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Stress balls reduce surgical anxiety, partners don’t

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Using a stress ball or watching a DVD during surgery has been shown to reduce patients’ anxiety and pain after surgery.

Patients also reported reduced pain levels as a result of chatting to nurses while on the operating table, in a study conducted by the University of Surrey. Nearly 400 patients were distracted in different ways during varicose vein surgery and simple distractions were found to improve their experience.

Anxiety is a common response during surgery and it is thought that high anxiety levels lead to more pain after the operation. Patients in this study were given either a DVD to watch, music to listen to, a nurse to talk to, or a stress ball to hold during their surgery. Pain and anxiety was assessed using a questionnaire, which found that those who watched a DVD, interacted with nurses or handled stress balls felt less anxious. And those who talked to nurses or handled stress balls reported less pain.

But in contrast to previous research, listening to music had no significant effect on pain or anxiety. The lead researcher suggested that this was because listening to music demands less cognitive input. The research team recommended the routine use of distractions during surgery, particularly in light of their minimal cost.

In a separate study, however, the presence of a romantic partner during painful medical procedures made women feel worse rather than better. Increased pain was most pronounced in women who avoided closeness in their relationships.

In this study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, female volunteers were subjected to a series of painful laser pulses while their partner was in and then out of the room. Women who scored higher pain levels while their partner was in the room were more likely to be those who said they preferred to avoid closeness, trusted themselves more than their partners and felt uncomfortable in their relationships.

But whatever distraction is used, it may be more effective if the patient is made aware that it is part of the treatment. A study published in The Lancet Neurology found that when patients were completely unaware that a treatment was being given for a nervous condition such as pain and anxiety, the treatment was less effective than when given overtly. The difference between open and hidden administrations was thought to represent the placebo component of the treatment, even though no placebo had been given. 

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