Don't Suck It Up: Vocalizing Pain Helps Make It Easier To Tolerate

pain
Vocalizing your pain with an "Ow!" or something less suitable for children can actually help pain subside. Emilio Labrador, CC BY 2.0

If you want the pain to go away, or at least fall off in severity, you shouldn’t keep your discomfort bottled up, a new study finds. Even if it doesn’t earn you any points in the toughness department, acknowledging your ouchies will probably make you feel a little bit better.

A good deal of research exists to suggest our brains struggle to handle more than one cognitive load at a time. Either we give the pain signals traveling from our nerves to our brain the proper time of day, or we recruit the brain regions responsible for speech to get in the way of those signals. Of course, it may be more intuitive to imagine a pain so unbearable it renders us speechless, rather than a word so cathartic it actually wipes out the pain.

Scientists from National University of Singapore think they might have found proof for the latter, though. In measuring how long 55 students could keep their hands submerged in a bowl of ice water, they found the subjects that did it the longest were those in the group permitted to say “Ow,” followed closely behind by a group that was allowed to press a button. The other groups — the control group, those who heard someone else say “Ow,” and those who heard a recording of themselves saying “Ow” — saw no effect.

The research builds on prior studies investigating forms of vocalized pain reduction. In 2009, for example, scientists from Keele University in the UK found people who were allowed to swear managed to last 40 seconds longer than people who couldn’t. In 2011, follow-up tests showed the effect seemed to depend on shock value: People with saltier mouths didn’t see as much of a reduction in pain as people who swore less frequently.

Annett Schirmer, associate professor psychology at NUS, says the new study could move the field even further with its clinical significance. “Based on our results, I think it would be useful for clinicians and health care professionals to talk to patients undergoing a painful procedure,” she said. “By engaging them in speech, they would help their patients better tolerate the procedure.”

It also could help the everyday klutz to manage the chronic pain of stubbing a toe or bonking a forehead. In the long run, piling on the expletives might help lower the cost of ice packs.

Source: Swee G, Schirmer A. On the Importance of Being Vocal: Saying “Ow” Improves Pain Tolerance. The Journal of Pain. 2015.

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