For those of us suffering from chronic pain, the urge to scream at the top of our lungs, “STOP!”can be overwhelming. Not just because we are fed up and in desperate need of relief, but maybe because we understand at a primal level it may be a way to get much needed respite. Ever wonder why we yell, “Ow!” when we stub our toe? Whether alone or among others? Sure it’s a way to attract help or keep an attacker at bay, but some research is showing it may also be a coping mechanism for modulating pain.
Sadly, in our culture we are told to suffer in silence, “grit our teeth and bear it.” Many believe acknowledging pain is a sign of weakness. But science shows bottling up our pain actually makes it worse.
One study showed that those who swore could keep their hand submerged in ice cold water longer. Just the act of swearing increased their heart rate and reduced the amount of pain they perceived. It showed that habitual use of expletives is associated with a better pain tolerance than when neutral speech is used. Maybe that’s why we many tend to shout “%+&#*” whenever we are hurt. Especially since this seems to be a uniform response, regardless of culture or language spoken.
But even just exclaiming “ow!” caused an “analgesic effect” in another study. Both appear to be helpful because they activate the motor system and allow us the ability to utter our verbal responses. Research suggests that it is the activity of these and other muscles that can moderate pain.
1) In one study, children were asked to pretend they were blowing bubbles while getting a vaccine injection. They showed less non- verbal signs of pain like grimacing, squeezing their eyes shut, making a fist than did their counterparts who breathed normally.
2) In another study, those asked to tap their fingers were able to tolerate painful stimuli to the other hand longer than those who did not. And they reported it was less painful.
Regardless of the stimulation, impacting the motor cortex and motor imagery all had similar effects.
But beyond being a motor act, vocalizing also produces a sound. Research has shown that hearing our own voice acts as its own analgesic by empowering us -the vocal feedback makes us feel in control, and less emotional, which appears to dampen pain.
This is thought to be due to the fact that unlike other forms of vocalization, screams have been found to be routed through the amygdala- the place where emotions and pain are modulated. It’s been postulated that because this area is where pain and our ability to produce sound reside, we can’t experience both at the same time. Or at least at the same levels. In this way, the act of screaming may diminish the amount of pain we feel by way through the “gate control theory.”
In this case, when you hit your finger with a hammer, the pain signal shoots through the spine to the brain telling you you’re hurt. Gate control theorizes a system of complex “gates” the sensation has to pass through before that event registers. And each gate can weaken or enhance those signals. Relaxation techniques, massage, medications, ice, and heat can open or close the gates and change the perceived pain. We may not be able to consciously impact those gates but the nervous system can only handle so many travelers on the same path and allow so much through the gate at one time. Because pain and vocalizing travel together, screaming or cursing might help close some gates thereby blocking other transmissions, such as those from pain.
Beyond these suppositions, screaming obscenities or a simple “Ow!” also elicits a human response. By encouraging those within hearing distance to respond, whether by administering necessary first aid or offering a much needed hug, over time they have helped shape our experiences and expectations into a habitual response.
We also know that when we are in pain our entire body stresses and becomes tense, setting off a whole cascade of events that tightens muscles everywhere. But when we talk in a low voice or let go with a groan deep within our gut, all the muscles in our throat and below relax. Just opening our mouth causes this effect which translates to relaxing muscles all the way to the pelvic floor.
That’s why I encourage dropping the shoulders, opening the jaw, closing the mouth and breathing in deeply through the nose for a count of five, holding to the count of five, breathing out to the count of five. But this time, moan as you expel your air. This simple addition will improve relaxation throughout the entire body.
So, next time you are hurt, or as an adjunct to pain relieving remedies, try:
Moaning and groaning
Tapping your fingers or toes
And see if it helps.