Texting a stranger during surgery reduces pain

Patients without access to a mobile phone during surgery were almost twice as likely to receive extra pain relief as patients who played the game Angry Birds and six times as likely as patients who exchanged texts with a stranger. (Credit: iStockphoto)

The simple act of texting someone during a minor surgical procedure done under local anesthesia can significantly reduce the need for narcotic pain relief.

Further, when that text buddy is a stranger, the odds a patient will ask for medications to take the edge off could be as little as one-sixth of those who undergo surgery without a phone.

“These findings suggest that the simple act of communicating with a companion or stranger provides an analgesic-sparing effect,” researchers write in a new study published in the journal Pain Medicine. “The data also suggest that text-based communication with a stranger is more effective.”

Angry Birds

The study builds on previous findings that have shown social support before and during medical procedures can reduce anxiety and perceptions of pain.

Researchers decided to test whether mobile phones that allow patients to send text messages or play games could bring that support benefit into settings where the company of family members or friends is not possible.

They conducted an experiment to track four groups: patients receiving standard mobile phone-free perioperative treatment; those using a mobile phone to play the game Angry Birds; patients using a mobile phone to text with a close friend or family member; and others invited to text with a research assistant instructed to focus on “getting to know you” conversations.

None of the 98 patient volunteers who took part from January to March 2012, the research assistant texting, or nine of the 10 treating anesthesiologists (the lone exception being a coauthor of the study) were aware of the nature of the research. Treatment in all cases was left entirely to the discretion of the physicians.

Texting therapy

The findings showed that patients receiving “standard therapy”—meaning those not using mobile phones during surgery—were almost twice as likely to receive supplemental pain relief as patients who played the game Angry Birds before and during the procedure.

The same patients were more than four times as likely to receive additional analgesic as those texting a companion and—most notably—more than six times as likely to receive additional narcotic relief as patients who engaged in a texting conversation with a stranger.

To verify that latter effect and explore its source, researchers analyzed the language of the two groups allowed to text during their surgeries.

Distraction  methods

Text conversations with companions related more to biology, the body and negative emotions, while texts with a stranger included more words expressing positive emotions, with patients writing more often about self-affirming topics.


The study provides the first evidence that texting offers a benefit that is beyond traditional treatment or even “distraction” methods such as playing a video game. The team called for new work to explore exactly what type of conversations work best, and how far this benefit can be developed to assist patients and doctors.

“Our findings suggest that text messaging may be a more effective intervention that requires no specialized equipment or involvement from clinicians,” the authors write.

“Even more importantly, text-based communication may allow for the analgesic-sparing benefits of social support to be introduced to other clinical settings where this type of support is not otherwise available.”

Cornell doctoral student Jamie Guillory, and physicians Christopher Woodruff and Jeffrey Keilman from McGill Universityare coauthors of the study.

Source: Cornell University