Chronic Pain & Hearing Painful, Negative Words: Harnessing the Brain's Power

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • We all know that cruel or thoughtless words can cause emotional pain.  But according to a study conducted at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, using pain-associated words might actually increase physical pain. 

    Study Methods


    The brains of 16 healthy subjects were scanned using functional MRI as they participated in two exercises.

    • In the first exercise, subjects were told to imagine a situation associated with the word presented.  They were then presented with a variety of words including positive, negative, neutral and pain-associated words.
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    • In the second exercise, subjects were asked to focus on a brain-teaser task while the same types of words were presented in the background. 

    Study Results

    When the subjects focused on pain-related words like “plaguing,” “tormenting,” or “grueling,” the areas in the brain that retain memories of painful experiences were activated.  However, those areas were not triggered by other words – even very negative words such as “disgusting,” “terrible,” and “horrible.” 

    When the subjects were mentally distracted, the pain-related words still had a more significant impact on their brains than the other words, but less of an impact than when they were focusing on the pain-associated words. 

    In My Opinion...

    I am really intrigued by this study.  I think our brains are far more powerful than most of us realize.  Long ago I learned that controlling my thoughts and focusing on positive things made a big difference in my physical and emotional health.  But until now I've just thought in terms of positive versus negative thought patterns – not in terms of pain-related words. 

    Since this was a very small study, we can't make definitive conclusions, but it does open up an interesting area for further research.  I can't help but wonder just how far I can go in reducing my pain by controlling my thoughts and focusing on other things.  It certainly can't hurt to try. 

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    Sources: 
    Richter M, et al. Do words hurt? Brain activation during explicit and implicit processing of pain words. Pain. 2010;148(2):198-205.
    Leavitt SB. Words Can Trigger Pain Centers in the Brain. Pain-Topics.org News/Research Update.  April 9, 2010.

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Published On: April 28, 2010