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.

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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