Laugh Your Way Through Pain

(Health Secrets Newsletter) Most people look at me as if I’m slightly crazy when they ask what type of pain relief I used when giving birth to my son and I reply “Nothing, I just laughed a lot!” Luckily researchers at Oxford University in the UK have finally published a small study to back up my theory that the act of laughter can increase pain thresholds.

While I’m not suggesting that a good belly laugh will make pregnancy or childbirth easier or any other make painful experiences completely pain free, I found that as long as my husband was in the delivery room with me and we managed to keep giggling at every contraction, the pain of labor never became severe enough for me to demand any form of artificial pain relief, and this seems to support the findings of the new study.

What Did the Study Show?

The study, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was designed to determine the role of laughter in social bonding. The researchers believed that the act of laughter can release endorphins, which would create a general sense of wellbeing and also act as a natural form of pain relief. Therefore they designed the study to measure whether participants� pain thresholds were increased immediately after physical laughter.

The research consisted of six separate study groups of between 16 and 62 adults each. Most of the studies were conducted in the lab where participants were asked to watch either comedy shows, or unfunny factual documentary shows, either in groups or on their own, and their laugher was measured using microphones.  Their pain thresholds were measured before and after watching the videos by using a blood pressure cuff. The cuff was inflated until the participant could no longer stand the pain and then the pressure was recorded.

Another small study took place at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where random audience members from either comedy stage shows or serious stage dramas were compared. They were asked to report their own laughter levels on a scale of one to five, and their pain threshold was measured before and after the show by asking them to stand against a wall with their knees bent to a ninety-degree angle for as long as they could. Participants who had drunk alcohol before or during the shows were excluded.

The results of the study showed that:

  • Participants’ pain thresholds were increased after watching comedy videos or stage shows
  • There was no difference in pain threshold after watching serious videos or stage shows

There was only an increase in pain threshold in participants that had watched a funny video or show in a group; participants that had watched the same videos on their own had no increase in pain threshold. There was only an increase in pain threshold in those participants that had physically laughed out loud, showing that the difference was caused by the act of laughter itself and not by a general �feel good feeling� induced by the video or show.

The study was conducted by Professor Robin Dunbar, one of Britain�s leading evolutionary biologists, who suggests that “Laughing is physically very exhausting, and anything that taxes the body physically triggers endorphins as a natural response as part of the pain control mechanism. We think the effect only comes from full-blown hearty laughter, which involves a series of sharp exhalations with no in-drawing of breath.”

Pain relief is far from the only health benefit of laughter, and as discussed in a previous article, a good laugh can do us a great deal of good. Laughter can boost circulation, improving blood vessel health and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. It can also relax muscles, relieving tension, and reducing the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. Laughter can burn calories, boost our immune systems, work our facial muscles, and help us to deal with negative emotions. It seems that anyone can benefit from a good laugh.


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