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Love hurts: Heartache mimics physical pain

March 28, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
They say that "love hurts." Now there's some science to back it up. The pain of a bad breakup may feel like physical pain, too.

A relationship gone bad can be heartbreaking. And now, according to researchers, it can also be painful -- literally. Turns out even just contemplating a breakup can make you ache all over.

Scientists say functional MRI images illustrate how the heart and mind are truly connected.

"The idea of heartache is an old, old term and I think it's there for a reason," said Dr. Steven Richeimer, USC Pain Center.

Researchers say feelings of social rejection light up the same regions of the brain involved in physical pain.

In the study, University of Michigan researchers asked people who recently had an unwanted romantic breakup to look at a picture of their ex or hold a hot cup of coffee. They found the pain reaction in the brain was exactly the same.

"When you effect negative emotions, you will activate a lot of the same nervous system parts and systems and chemistry that are involved in bodily pain," said Richeimer.

Richeimer says people with nerve pain are often treated with anti-depressants because the same neural pathways appear to be intertwined.

While you can't always prevent a broken heart, experts say you can learn to manage it with proven stress-reduction techniques

"Exercise is good for the physical health, but they should also be doing things to manage their emotional health," said Richeimer.

Richeimer says pain specialists have known for years that people who are depressed experience physical pain more profoundly. He says treating the depression often helps reduce the pain.