In exposure for chronic pain, avoidance is often forbidden (extinction with response prevention; RPE) to prevent misattributions of safety. Although exposure is an effective treatment, relapse is common. Little is known about the underlying mechanisms of return of pain-related avoidance. We hypothesized that pain-related avoidance would recover when becoming available again after RPE and after unexpected pain episodes (“reinstatement”), especially when restricting avoidance during RPE (compared to instructing not to use it). In an operant pain-related avoidance conditioning paradigm, healthy volunteers used a robotic arm to perform various arm reaching movements differing in pain-effort trade-off. During acquisition, participants learned to avoid pain by performing more effortful movements. During RPE they only performed the formerly pain-associated movement under extinction, and were either forbidden (Restricted group) or merely instructed (Instructed group) not to perform other movements. One day later, we tested spontaneous recovery and reinstatement of pain-related fear and avoidance with availability of all movements. Results showed that pain-related fear and avoidance re-emerge after RPE, though not to pre-treatment levels. The reinstatement manipulation had no additional effect. No group differences were observed. We discuss findings in the context of learning processes in (chronic) pain disability and relapse prevention in chronic pain treatment. Perspective: Using experimental models of relapse, we investigated the return of pain-related avoidance behaviour after extinction with response prevention. Findings are potentially informative for clinicians performing exposure treatment with chronic pain patients.Copyright © 2020. Published by Elsevier Inc.
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