Mental distraction really can reduce pain, and the effect is not just in the mind, research has shown.

Scientists carried out scanning studies which showed how a distracting memory test blocked incoming pain signals.

Volunteers were asked to complete either a hard or easy letter memory task while having a painful level of heat applied to their arms.

While distracted by the harder task, they perceived less pain. This was reflected by lower activity in the spinal cord which could be seen in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.

"The results demonstrate that this phenomenon is not just a psychological phenomenon, but an active neuronal mechanism reducing the amount of pain signals ascending from the spinal cord to higher-order brain regions," said study leader Dr Christian Sprenger, from the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

The findings are reported online in the journal Current Biology.

Giving the volunteers the opioid-blocking drug naloxone reduced the pain-relieving effect of distraction by 40%.

This was evidence that endogenous opioids - the brain's natural equivalent of morphine - played an essential role.

"Our findings strengthen the role of cognitive-behavioural therapeutic approaches in the treatment of pain diseases, as it could be extrapolated that these approaches might also have the potential to alter the underlying neurobiological mechanisms as early as in the spinal cord," the researchers wrote.

Take a look at HuffPost Lifestyle's round-up of foods that fight pain...

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  • 8 Foods That Fight Pain

  • Turmeric For Muscle Pain

    According to previous research, turmeric is more effective in tackling pain relief and inflammation than steroid medications. According to researchers from the<a href="http://www.nih.gov/" target="_hplink"> National Institutes of Health</a>, the pain relief properties from turmeric are more prevalent to <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Rheumatoid-arthritis/Pages/Introduction.aspx" target="_hplink">rheumatoid arthritis</a> sufferers, as it inhibits the destruction of joints from arthritis. Turmeric contains a protein called NF-kB, which, when turned on, activates the body's inflammatory response, which helps battles aches and pains.

  • Red Grapes For Back Pain

    Red grapes are packed full of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant compound that blocks enzymes that degenerate tissue damage, which can lead to joint and muscle pain. According to the <a href="http://www.rush.edu/" target="_hplink">Rush University Medical Center</a>, resveratrol helps protect against cartilage damage that causes back pain in particular. Another study by the <a href="http://www.msu.edu/" target="_hplink">Michigan State University</a> found that cherry extract is ten times more effective than aspirin when it comes to relieving inflammation in the body. Other berries rich in back-pain fighting resveratrol include blueberries, cranberries and blackberries.

  • Ginger For Knee Pain

    Ginger is well known for its ability to block the pain-causing prostaglandin levels in the body. Ginger has long been used as a natural method of pain relief, particularly in India, where researchers regularly test its inflammation and pain relief properties. According to research by the <a href="http://www.miami.edu/" target="_hplink">University of Miami</a>, researchers discovered that two third of patients with chronic knee pain reported less soreness after taking a daily dose of ginger extract for six weeks. Health experts recommend a daily dosage of 500 to 1,000mg of ginger a day to help ward off aches and pains.

  • Soy For Joint Pain

    Research by the <a href="http://osu.okstate.edu/welcome/" target="_hplink">Oklahoma State University</a> found that osteoarthritis sufferers who consumed 40g of soy protein a day for three months, reported a 30% improvement on their arthritis-related knee pain. Soy contains bundles of <a href="http://www.isoflavones.info/" target="_hplink">isoflavones</a>, a plant hormone with strong anti-inflammatory properties, which helps reduce the discomfort of osteoarthritis and other related joint pains.

  • Salmon For Neck Pain

    Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for keeping the immune system healthy - and warding off inflammation and chronic neck pain. During research at the <a href="http://www.pitt.edu/" target="_hplink">University of Pittsburgh</a>, 60% of participants experienced enhanced pain relief from eating more fish or taking fish oil supplements for three months. The effect was so great, almost as many stopped taking their daily pain relief as a result. Besides salmon, other fish that contain high levels of the essential EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids include halibut, tuna, trout, mackerel and sardines.

  • Cherries For Arthritis

    Cherries, like the other members of the berry family, contain high amounts of antioxidants called anthocyanins - the key compound to the cherry's pain fighting power. According to research by the <a href="http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/" target="_hplink">Department of Agriculture</a>, participants who ate 45 big cherries daily for 28 days reduced their inflammation levels significantly. Researchers found that cherry anthocyanins are especially effective in treating arthritis symptoms, as participants of the study said their joint pain had improved as a result of consuming cherries or cherry juice. Anthocyanins contain antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties.

  • Coffee For Post-Workout Pain

    If you ever wondered why over-the-counter painkillers contain caffeine, it's because coffee enhances the effects of common pain relief. It also acts as a natural pain reliever itself, particularly good for post-workout aches and pains. Researchers from the <a href="http://www.uga.edu/" target="_hplink">University of Georgia</a> discovered that patients who drank two cups of coffee after working out, reduced common post-workout aches and pains by almost 50%. Experts also claim that caffeine is good for a pre-workout boost too, as it has been proven to raise the body's pain threshold.

  • Sage For Sore Throats

    The humble sage is commonly used to treat throat ailments, like tonsillitis, mouth ulcers, gum disease, laryngitis, as well as other problems like headaches, bruises, bad memory and common menopause symptoms. Sage contains rosmarinic acid, which is absorbed into the body and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent, which soothes inflamed muscles. Add it to boiling water and make your own sage tea, or sprinkle it as a seasoning on your food.