Laughter as medicine can relieve chronic pain - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Laughter as medicine can relieve chronic pain

(Robin Williams plays a doctor in the movie Patch Adams makes a child laugh. Publicity photo)

Laughter is an involuntary reflex, when you laugh you are in the moment and not thinking about the past or worrying about the future.  In that moment, positive healing changes occur in your body. This is not just “feel good” philosophy, it is serious science that actually has a name. The study of humor and laughter is called gelotology, (gelos is Greek for “laughter”).

Humor and laughter are not the same thing.  The brain determines what is humorous based on culture and personal experiences. When the brain interprets an event or thing as humor, the reflexive response is laughter. Regardless of what makes us laugh the positive health effects of laughter are universal.

Laughter relieves chronic pain. Laughter stimulates the release of natural opiate pain killers. In the 1960s Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins experienced excruciating back pain that was not relieved by medical treatments, including morphine. He experimented with laughter and spent several hours a day watching slapstick movies and reading humorous literature. He found that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter gave him at least two hours of pain-free sleep. He was able to return to work almost pain free within 6 months of starting his laughter therapy. He documented his experiences in the book “Anatomy of an Illness.”

Laughter relieves stress and improves immune function by lowering cortisol levels.  Excess cortisol suppresses immune function, less cortisol means a stronger immune system.  A strong immune system protects us against infections and all forms of cancer.  Dr. William Fry at Stanford University, one of the founders of gelotology, tested the effect of laughter on himself. He had blood samples taken at regular intervals while he watched comedies and funny videos. He found that laughter increased the number and activity of his immune cells.

Laughter improves social connections and strengthens emotional bonds. Laughter eases social tensions and implies shared values. The more laughter a group enjoys the more comfortable members are likely to be with each other. In one study couples that reported laughing the most reported the strongest emotional bonds, regardless of other differences.

Laughter increases blood flow to the brain and this may improve memory and mental performance. In another study researchers read a list of 30 words to study participants and then showed some of them funny videos afterward. A week later the participants who had laughed at the funny videos remembered 20 % more words than those who had not laughed.

Laugh whenever you can. If you can’t laugh out loud, a happy grin or a genuine smile may also be effective. Smiling facial expressions trigger positive responses in the brain that may have similar benefits as laughter.





About the author

Dr. Jennifer Rooke

Dr. Jennifer Rooke is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine. She recently joined the faculty at Morehouse to start a lifestyle medicine clinic. Lifestyle Medicine is the use of interventions such as evidenced-based nutrition, physical activity and stress management to treat disease. Dr. Rooke has practiced medicine for over 27 years and is board certified in both Occupational Medicine and Public Health/Preventive Medicine. Dr. Rooke is a fellow of both the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and the American College of Preventive Medicine. Dr. Rooke serves as adjunct faculty in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at Emory University. Contact the author or visit her website Contact the author.

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