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As a doctor interested in the wellbeing of my patients I have always tried to ensure that any person in my care feels at ease, that they can put their trust in me and establish that great bond between doctor and patient.

Empathy is something many of us take for granted, we even expect it in certain circumstances and there is good reason for that, because it so important for rapport and trust, essential to any relationship.

It turns out that empathy can go one step further in providing something else as well: pain relief.

Yes, it appears from new research that empathy goes a long way to helping a person in pain to cope with it better, by increasing their pain tolerance. It changes the brain’s response to stress.

In a very small study of just 9 subjects experiencing pain, researchers were able to see the difference in MRI scans between people who had had a pre-pain interview with an empathetic doctor, who asked open-ended questions in a patient centric fashion vs. an interview that just went through a series of clinical questions.

The brain imaging showed that those asked the patient centric questions had less activation in the area of their brain called the anterior insula when being shown a picture of the “empathetic” doctor at the time they were experiencing pain. They also reported, “feeling” less pain.

Whilst a very small study, it’s good to see how the neurobiology supports what makes intuitive sense and emphasises the importance of ensuring that those who “care” for others, whether they be doctors, nurses and other ancillary staff or family members.

If you have ever been a patient yourself, you may recognise how a smile, a few words of encouragement can make all the difference in allaying our fears and it appears, our very experience of any pain associated with an illness or injury.

The question of empathy and how it can be maintained is being investigated, because it has been noted how our empathy levels have been consistently eroding over the last thirty years or so. Empathy is all part of our “humanness”. It is a skill or trait we cannot afford to be without.

The question now to be asked is how can we maintain or restore empathy for all our sakes?


Issidoros Sarinopoulos, Ashley M. Hesson, Chelsea Gordon, Seungcheol A. Lee, Lu Wang, Francesca Dwamena, Robert C. Smith. Patient-centered interviewing is associated with decreased responses to painful stimuli: An initial fMRI study. Patient Education and Counseling, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2012.10.021

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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