Executive and Attentional Functions in Chronic Pain: Does Performance Decrease with Increasing Task Load?
BACKGROUND: Diminished executive function and attentional control has been reported in chronic pain patients. However, the precise pattern of impairment in these aspects of cognition in chronic pain remains unclear. Moreover, a decline in psychomotor speed could potentially influence executive and attentional control performance in pain patients.OBJECTIVE: To examine different aspects of executive and attentional control in chronic pain together with the confounding role of psychomotor slowing.METHODS: Neuropsychological tests of sustained attention, planning ability, inhibition and mental flexibility were administered to 34 participants with chronic pain and 32 control participants.RESULTS: Compared with the controls, participants with chronic pain took longer to complete tests of sustained attention and mental flexibility, but did not perform worse on inhibition or planning tasks. The decreased performance on the mental flexibility task likely reflects a reduction in psychomotor speed. The pattern of performance on the sustained attention task reveals a specific decline in attention, indicated by a disproportionate decline in performance with an increase in task duration and by increased fluctuations in attention during task performance. No additional effect was noted of pain intensity, pain duration, pain catastrophizing, depressive symptoms, reduced sleep because of the pain or opioid use.CONCLUSIONS: Executive and attention functions are not uniformly affected in chronic pain. At least part of the previously reported decline in executive function in this group may reflect psychomotor slowing. Overall, limited evidence was found that executive and attention performance is indeed lower in chronic pain. Therefore, it can be concluded that in chronic pain sustained attention performance is diminished while mental flexibility, planning and inhibition appear to be intact.