Texting could be the next frontier in pain medication. Text messaging during surgery can reduce a patient’s need for narcotics, according to a new study from the journal Pain Medicine

Before being given anesthesia, nearly 100 patients in the hospital for minor surgery in Montreal were asked to either play Angry Birds, text a friend, text a research assistant hired for the study, or go through the traditional pre-operation procedure without using their phone. Participants in the active test groups texted or played games throughout their operation. Previous research has indicated that social support can be an important factor in the pain associated with having an operation.

Patients who went through surgery normally, without their cell phone to distract them, were more than six times more likely to ask for supplemental painkillers than patients who had a “get to know you” conversation with a research assistant over text during their surgery. The pain-mitigating effect wasn’t just about having something to concentrate on other than surgery: the patients who played Angry Birds asked for more medication than those who texted, though less than patients who didn't use their phones at all (as if the world needed another reason to play Angry Birds). 

And texting a stranger proved to be more helpful than texting a close friend or relative. The researchers speculate that this seemingly contradictory result—why would a stranger be more comforting than a friend?—could have to do with the way conversation differs in those two social situations. When texting friends, patients tended to talk about what was going on, talking about their body and the negative emotions they were feeling. Because the friend was also concerned about the patient, there may have also been a bit of a negative feedback loop of anxiety over the surgery. By contrast, patients were more positive when talking with strangers. Putting on a happy face seemed to diminish the patients’ pain, reducing their need for powerful painkillers.

Small talk: The opiate of the masses. 

[h/t: Futurity]