The Power of Words

Credit: Jenn Sterling, via Flickr

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
… Or can they?

Research from the Friedrich Schiller University Medical School in Jena, Germany found that pain-related words activate the limbic-brain complex, or the area of the brain that stores memories of painful experiences.

The study, which was published in an edition of the journal Pain, included 16 healthy participants who were asked to read positive, negative, neutral and pain-related words out loud, first while imagining a painful situation, and then again while they were distracted by a brain teaser, such as a puzzle. Researchers used an MRI scanner to measure brain activity and then compared the results from each type of word.

One of the leading researchers, Dr. Thomas Weiss of Friedrich Schiller University, says his team was interested in pursuing the study because language is such an integral part of human life, and because there was evidence to suggest that the spoken word may be affecting us in ways we never considered.

We exchange information and ideas by language, so we thought that it should have an impact on such an important phenomenon like pain, Weiss said.

And he was right.

The MRI data showed that when participants said words like tormenting or grueling, both while thinking about a painful situation and when distracted by a brain teaser, the brain’s pain center was activated. However, the pain center did not respond to positive words like cuddling and kissing, or even to negative words like scary and dirty. Researchers say these findings suggest that saying pain-related words out loud and thinking about painful situations may be enough to stimulate neurological signals in the brain, which in turn could affect the physical pain we feel.

Whether you suffer from acute or chronic pain, Weiss says his research may provide new ways of coping. For example, he recommends patients distract themselves before getting an injection, as imagining happy things like the beach or your favorite dessert could help dull the painful sensation.

Although it is important for chronic pain sufferers to use pain-related words when describing their symptoms to caregivers, Weiss says the conversation should not end there. To avoid revving up the brain’s pain center, finish the chat on a positive note by discussing effective strategies for dealing with the pain. Staying optimistic will induce a placebo effect, Weiss says, which may even help provide some immediate relief.

Researchers from the study also point out that the dynamics of some self-help support groups dedicated to people living with pain may actually be counter-productive.

There seems to be a kind of competition between members as to who is suffering most severely, and this will surely enhance pain symptoms, Weiss says. If you’re part of a support group, avoid focusing too much attention on the pain itself, and instead try to contribute positive ideas to the discussion, like a method of coping you’ve had success with.

No matter what type of pain you experience, the results of the study suggest that anyone can find relief by simply adjusting their outlook.

Try not to think about pain all the time. Weiss says, Instead, think about overcoming pain.

Written by Allie Nicodemo