Laughter And Chronic Pain: Nature’s Oldest Medicine

Next time chronic pain seems like a never-ending battle, try watching a funny movie or reading cartoons.

Laughter and chronic pain may not seem like the most obvious connection, but humor can ease the suffering for those living with related conditions, according to a study presented at a meeting of The European Pain Federation Congress.

Scientists discovered that laughing not only helped patients experience a better quality of life, but it also increased their pain tolerance. To measure the impact that laughter had on chronic pain, Swiss scientists asked people watching funny movies to hold their hands in ice water. The people who laughed were able to tolerate the ice water longer than people who didn’t find the flicks funny.

Laughing helps people ignore their troubles and actually increases pain tolerance.

Effects of heightened pain tolerance lasted as long as 20 minutes after laughing ended. Researchers attributed the effect to humor’s biological effect in the body.

Endorphins are neurotransmitters found in the brain and throughout the nervous system. They’re also natural painkillers that work with the brain’s opiate receptors, the same receptors involved with opioid drugs like morphine, to change a person’s perception of pain. Although endorphins make a person feel good, they’re not addictive like opioid drugs.

Endorphins also reduce stress and boost the immune system response. Other ways to trigger endorphin release, besides laughing, include exercise.

When people laugh, their bodies release mood-lifting neurotransmitters and also reduce muscular tension. In 2011, Oxford psychologists discovered that the muscular movement of laughter required to generate the “ha, ha, ha” noise is the physical trigger for endorphins.

Make sure the laughter is authentic, researchers cautioned. Professor Willibald Ruch, a scientist at Zurich University, noted that:

“Our studies show that only ‘real’ delight, actually experienced and accompanied by a Duchenne expression, leads to increased pain tolerance.”

A Duchenne expression involves a smile that not only turns the corners of the mouth up, but also leads to wrinkles developing at the outer corner of the eyes. Faking laughter did not help patients increase their pain tolerance.

The effect was so pronounced that the scientists advocate including “humor interventions” in traditional chronic pain treatment.

Laughing increases pain tolerance and improves quality of life, researchers say.

The Swiss research isn’t the only study to highlight the connection between laughter and chronic pain. At the University of Southampton, scientists showed that cartoons helped to explain medical conditions to patients and increase engagement between the patient and doctor.

“Humor is frequently and naturally used by people with chronic illnesses to help them adjust and understand what is happening to them,” says Dr. Anne Kennedy, study author. Patients with chronic kidney disease were given a guidebook that included a series of cartoons depicting situations common to people in their situation, including experiences and anxieties.

Although not all of the patients like the cartoons—some even viewed them with hostility—most liked the attempt at humor, noting that it helped lighten the mood and deepened the insight they had related to their condition, according to the study.

Scientists said cartoons have promise to be used across more medical settings to help confer important information and increase morale. Laughter may emerge as a more common treatment method for disorders ranging from migraine to fibromyalgia as the number of studies published on the link between laughter and chronic pain increases.

Laughter does more than reduce pain; it slows the stress response and stimulates circulation.

Another study published in the Journal of Aging Research found that older adults who engaged in a humor therapy program experienced lower levels of pain, in addition to greater happiness and overall life satisfaction. Other benefits included less loneliness. Laughter has also been shown to help bond groups together, another antidote to loneliness, which is common among chronic pain sufferers.

Researchers say laughing more coupled with an overall good sense of humor, support of family and friends, and positive attitude makes people healthier, according to WebMD. “I believe that if people can get more laughter in their lives, they are a lot better off,” says psychologist Steve Wilson, who also works as a laugh therapist. Wilson says the health benefits of laughing are similar to exercise in that it elevates heart rate and causes people to breathe more deeply, oxygenating the body.

According to WebMD, a person having trouble sleeping because of a spinal condition causing pain found watching Marx Brothers movies and Candid Camera episodes helped him score a few hours of sleep without pain.

Need tips on incorporating more thigh-slapping humor into your life?

Try laughing yoga

An entire form of yoga, called hasya yoga, seeks to help practitioners learn to engage in the kind of robust laughter that will release endorphins and help you ignore pain. Many people with chronic pain disorders, including fibromyalgia and arthritis, have turned to the activity to reduce related pain, reports Arthritis Today. Classes involve various activities and breathing exercises designed to make people laugh.

Watch a movie

Here’s a list of Bravo’s 100 funniest movies of all time. Options range from modern favorites to classic comedies, opening the way for at least 1 or 2 movies to indulge your sense of humor—whether you’re more into Adam Sandler or Bill Murray.

Hit the local comedy club

National act or local hit, your local town is sure to have a comedy club featuring live talent. Being in a room full of laughing people is sure to lift your spirits and release those endorphins.

Play funny games

Whether you pick up a board game that makes you laugh or gather round the family for a game of charades, lightening the mood takes your mind off your worries and injects humor into your life.

Get serious about laughing

If you’re looking at humor like a medical treatment, then your biggest job is to seek out books, movies, television shows, and people that make you laugh. Consider setting a target for laughter, like watching a funny movie once a weekend, and carving out additional time for cartoons or laughter yoga.

What are your tips for incorporating more humor into your life?

Image by TheArches via Flickr

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