Words Can Hurt - Literally

Patient Expert

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.

  • 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.


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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