Simple reminders of loved ones, like photographs, engender feelings of being cared for and supported and can be strong enough to reduce pain, according to a study.

Previous studies have shown that having other people, or even pets, around when pain flares can make the discomfort more bearable. But researchers don’t yet know how much, or how little, it takes to elicit that effect.

To find out, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles applied pain, in this case from heat, to the forearms of 28 women who had all been in relationships for at least six months. Each woman went through this heat-pain test under a variety of conditions: holding the hand of their partner who was sitting behind a curtain; holding the hand of a stranger sitting behind a curtain; holding a squeeze ball; viewing a photo of their partner; viewing a photo of a male stranger; and viewing the letter x, which was meant to be a neutral image. They then rated the level of pain they felt in each circumstance.

The most powerful pain reducer turned out to be the picture of their significant other.

Images of their romantic partners lowered levels of pain even more than holding their hands. Viewing a partner’s picture also led to a significantly lower pain rating than viewing photographs of an object or looking at a picture of a stranger.

“The newest part of this is showing that even with this really stripped down procedure – people are just looking at pictures, not interacting with their support partners – you’re still seeing this reduction in pain,” says Naomi I. Eisenberger, PhD, an assistant professor at UCLA and the senior researcher on the project, which was recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers say their findings suggest that bringing photos of loved ones to painful procedures may be beneficial, especially if those individuals can’t be there in person. And because people have varying abilities in providing support, in some cases photos actually seem to be more effective than in-person support.

Christopher Gharibo, MD, is an anesthesiologist who studies pain management at New York University. He says there’s no question that when you look at images, they have the power to make you feel better. But he says a lot also depends on how you feel about your partner.

“That's clearly a major determinant,” Dr. Gharibo explains. “It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see. It’s how you interpret what you see. So I don’t think just any significant other would do. It has to be someone you are positively and emotionally connected to.”

Researchers don’t believe a photo of a deceased romantic partner would have the same effect either, since it could cause people to re-live the sorrow they felt when the person passed away. But researchers did not test that in this study.

Dr. Gharibo says it stands to reason that the same benefits might extend to photos of other loved ones like children, parents or close friends. He says if there’s a landscape or location that puts someone at ease, a picture of that might also prove beneficial.