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Recognizing Pain

People with migraine often have trouble getting others to believe that they are really in pain. And why should this be easy? Pain is invisible and subjective. We all handle pain differently, making it difficult for others to determine how much distress we are really in.

Could a computer solve this problem? Scholars at the University of California, San Diego have written a facial recognition computer program that, 85% of the time, can correctly assess whether people are truly in pain or whether they are faking it.1

The computer isn’t perfect, but does it do better than people? The study put this to a test. First, using a standard procedure to produce pain, they asked individuals to submerge their arm in a bucket of ice water for a minute. Then they asked the same people to submerge their arm in a bucket of warm water and pretend to be in pain. The computer and human research subjects were then shown one-minute, silent videos of these individuals and asked to identify when people were genuinely in pain and when they were pretending to be in pain. In contrast to the computer, human subjects were only correct about half of the time. In other words, they might as well have been guessing. (You can test your own ability to distinguish between these faces here)

At this point, the computer had an advantage, since it had been programmed to detect nonverbal cues that indicate pain. So researchers decided to train a new set of human subjects in how to identify people in pain by their facial expressions. The training hardly improved outcomes. At best, human subjects correctly identified the person in pain 55% of the time.

This study has important implications for those of us living in pain. Clinicians, especially emergency room doctors, have real problems determining which patients need pain medications and which patients are drug-seekers. At the moment, this computer program isn’t effective enough to help them out. But what if technological advances enabled physicians to use computers to assess pain? Would you welcome a technology that could verify your pain? I can imagine this would be great if it were 100% accurate. But nothing is correct all the time. Would you trust a computer to determine your pain levels? Would it be better than trusting your human physicians to trust you?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.



  • Vicki
    6 years ago

    I don’t like the idea. I have lived in constant pain for so long that most of the time even the doctors and therapists who know me really well have trouble reading my pain levels. Even family usually have to ask. I guess I just don’t show it much.

    I’d much rather have the doctors rely on my past records that show I’ve been a migraine patient for many years and complied with all my treatments than anything trying to recognize pain in my expressions.

  • Matthew
    6 years ago

    I believe a computer could with enough time be programed to recognize pain to a reasonable amount of accuracy.

    Most human that I have meet can’t tell how much pain I am in. I either hide it too well or they are just oblivious (this includes doctors.) The only one I know who can tell how much pain I am in is my Mother. She also has chronic Migrains.

  • Maureen
    6 years ago

    I took the quiz and scored 100%, and I think several of my family members would score well. Some are rather oblivious, but others know, almost at a glance, when I am in pain. It would be interesting to test those with chronic pain and their care givers.

  • Diana-Lee
    6 years ago

    I could imagine that a computer could be trained to do a good job recognizing my pain and the subtle signals associated with it. My husband is a pro at it by now. Better even than my parents, who have known me as a Migraineur since age 6!

    However, if a computer could be taught to recognize pain that tells me that a physician can be, too, and patients deserve that.

    Very interesting research! Thanks for bringing it to us.

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