Living With Chronic Pain

Can Laughing Relieve Pain?

Monday I talked about the powerful benefits laughing has on our physical and emotional health. That’s equally as true when it comes to decreasing pain. I know it sounds crazy. If I went to a doctors office wanting pain relief I’d be pretty unhappy if I were told to “just laugh”. But frankly, laugh you should, and regularly.

Laughing can help you relax, reduce stress, be more compassionate, reduce depression and trigger additional healing processes that can have far reaching benefits. Nothing works quicker to bring the mind and body back into balance than having a good laugh. And now we know a daily giggle can also help us to cope with, and reduce, chronic pain. New research shows that laughter releases “happy chemicals” that are even more vital for suffering patients.

Study researcher Robin Dunbar, of the University of Oxford, and colleagues thought our guffaws might turn on the brain’s endorphins, a long debated, but unproven idea. These pain-relieving chemicals are created in response to exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food, love and sexual orgasm, among other things. In addition to giving us a “buzz,” these endorphins raise our ability to ignore pain. So the researchers used the endorphins’ pain relief to determine if laughter causes an endorphin release. They first tested participants for their pain threshold, then exposed them to either a control or a laugh-inducing test, and then tested pain levels again.

The tests included humorous videos (clips of the TV shows “Mr. Bean” and “Friends”) and a live comedy show during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Because laughter is such a social activity (it’s 30 times more likely to happen in a social context than when alone), the participants were tested both in groups and alone.

The lab-based pain tests included wrapping a participant’s arm in a frozen wine-cooling sleeve or a blood-pressure cuff. The pain tests were administered until the patient said they couldn’t take it anymore. At the live shows, the researchers tested pain by having participants squat against a wall until they collapsed. (Wow, now that’s giving your all!)

Across all tests, the participants’ ability to tolerate pain jumped after laughing. On average, watching about 15 minutes of comedy in a group increased pain threshold by 10 percent. Participants tested alone showed slightly smaller increases in their pain threshold and those watching serious content either didn’t change or actually had a lower tolerance.

A possible explanation could be that by activating the release of endorphins, humor relieves muscular tension, thereby affecting pain on both a mental and physical level. The researchers believe that the long series of exhalations that accompany true laughter cause physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles which then, in turn, triggers the endorphin release. Humor can also be used as a distraction to control the pain and increase pain tolerance.

Research presented at a meeting of The European Pain Federation (EFIC) Congress, held in Florence, Italy agreed- laughter can help those suffering from chronic pain.  A team of Swiss researchers reported that laughter and humor can increase pain tolerance and improve quality of life. According to Thomas Benz (RehaClinic Zurzach, Switzerland), targeted humor interventions should be part of pain therapy. In the Swiss team’s research, people laughing at comedy films were able to keep their hands in ice water longer than those who were not laughing. Subsequent measurements showed that increased pain tolerance even remained 20 minutes after laughing.

However he cautioned that laughter needs to ‘come from the heart’ in order to relieve pain. “Our studies show that only ‘real’ delight, actually experienced and accompanied by a Duchenne expression, leads to increased pain tolerance.” In a ‘Duchenne smile’ not only are the corners of the mouth pulled upward, but the eyes are also involved with typical small wrinkles at the outer corners. Professor Ruch said that faked smiles and laughter do not improve pain tolerance.

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Finding humor in the throes of chronic pain may be a difficult task but the rewards are worth it. You don’t have to be happy to get the benefits, the body and mind can be fooled in countless ways and you can feel better just by the physical act of faking laughter.

So, let’s get started:


Then laugh- ha, ha, ha.

Keep going. . .focus on laughing, happiness, a well remembered comedy skit, a movie, or funny joke. . . and keep laughing.

Soon the endorphins will kick in and the laughs will be real, feeding on each other until true, belly deep laughs evolve.

Self-induced laughter has the same effects on the body, and releases the same beneficial hormones, as spontaneous laughter.

The idea that laughter has beneficial effects is not new. Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, documented his own laughter cure in the 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. Cousins had been diagnosed in the mid-1960s with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful degenerative disease of the connective tissue that left him weak and barely able to move. Doctors gave him a 500-to-1 chance of recovery. Instead of undergoing conventional treatments, Cousins checked out of the hospital and into a hotel, where he set up a film projector and played funny movies. He took massive doses of vitamin C and submitted himself to hours of the Marx Brothers. “I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect,” he wrote, “and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” Cousins recovered and lived for another 26 years. Inspired by his experience, a handful of scientists began researching the healing power of laughter.

By reducing stress and anxiety it may also promote a deeper, more restful sleep, even in patients with sleeping difficulties. In a 2011 study, more than 100 participants with depression and insomnia were split into two groups: a control group and a laughter therapy group. Compared to the control group, those in laughter therapy saw statistically significant improvements in depression, insomnia, and sleep quality. This suggests that laughter may be more powerful than anyone thought, helping to boost mood and relaxation as well as improve sleep. Most of these studies looked into how a formal program of laughter therapy worked, but adding “casual laughter” to your life could yield similar results. Watching funny movies, spending time with upbeat funny people who see the lighter side of life, and stand up comedians all might help diminish stress and encourage a better night’s sleep.

There is clearly nothing funny about being in pain but research now confirms that laughter offers a wealth of benefits for those of us who live with it everyday. We may not be able to resolve our constant, chronic pain but humor can give us a few precious moments of respite. Strung together that relief could be incalculable. Laughter is immensely healing on every level. Bringing as much humor into your life as possible should be a vital part of managing your pain. If more conventional therapies aren’t as helpful as you’d like, try adding a funny movie to your list of treatment options. Just 15 minutes of belly laughs a day may make a difference. It certainly can’t hurt.

“The human race has one really effective weapon – laughter.” -Mark Twain

dsc_0323    –Dr. Courtney

Sources: study was published today (Sept. 13) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

1 thought on “Can Laughing Relieve Pain?”

  1. It’s great to learn that laughter can reduce stress and anxiety. My wife is wanting to be less stressed after work. I’ll ask her if she’ll want to see a comedy show.

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