Newswise — RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC – Patients who text messaged a stranger just before minor surgeries required less supplemental pain relief than patients receiving standard therapy or distraction techniques, according to a recently published study conducted by researchers at RTI International, Cornell University and LaSalle Hospital (Montreal, QC).

The study, published in Pain Medicine and funded by Cornell University, showed that mobile phones provide new opportunities for social support, improving patient comfort and reducing the need for pain relief during minor surgeries and in other clinical settings at a very low cost.

"These findings suggest that the simple act of communicating with a companion or stranger reduces the need for supplemental anesthesia in a way that surpasses usual perioperative care during surgery," said Jamie Guillory Ph.D., digital media health research scientist RTI who conducted the study while at Cornell. "This is significant as the physical presence of a social support companion is often not feasible during many minor surgery procedures."

By applying a text-based intervention, this study is an extension of existing research on the impact of social support on pain perceptions and the need for narcotic pain relief.

Researchers recruited 98 patients receiving general anesthesia for minor surgeries in Montreal, Quebec between January and March 2012. They randomly assigned patients to text message with a companion, text message with a stranger, play a mobile phone game for distraction, or receive surgery (i.e. do nothing).

While both texting conditions reduced the need for pain management better than standard surgery, only texting a stranger reduced it beyond the distraction method of playing a mobile phone game. The researchers believe that is because the conversations with strangers were more emotionally positive, focusing on topics and values personally relevant to the patient.

"Consistent with this finding, previous research shows that engaging in activities that reinforce a person's core values helps people to endure a pain tolerance task longer," Guillory said.

Conversations with companions primarily focused on the surgery, the body and negative emotions, which suggest anxious feelings in the companion about the surgery, may have resulted in shared anxiety between the patient and companion, limiting the positive effects of social support.

"Although at first it seems counterintuitive that text messaging with a stranger was more effective than with a companion, it's the content of the conversation that makes the difference in reducing patients' need for pain relief during surgery," Guillory said.