Learn to Laugh to Control Pain

Dr Vernon Coleman

I don't think anyone really knows exactly why laughter and humour have such a positive pain-relieving effect. And there isn't yet any solid research evidence to prove that by laughing you can reduce the amount of pain in your life. But the amount of reliable anecdotal evidence is convincing.

One of the best-known patients to defeat pain with the therapeutic benefits of laughter was the American magazine editor Norman Cousins. Mr Cousins described his personal experiences in his book `The Anatomy of an Illnessí, and a film starring Ed Asner as Norman Cousins was later made, based on the book.

Having been diagnosed as suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling inflammatory disease for which there is no known cure, Norman Cousins was told by his doctors that there was nothing they could do for him apart from prescribe painkillers.

Desperately unhappy about his condition, Cousins refused to lie back and just take his medicine. He decided to try to cheer himself up by making a deliberate attempt to make himself laugh. He hired a projector and some of his favourite comedy films, and he started rereading books by some of his favourite humorous writers.

When the hospital staff complained that all the laughter coming from his room was disturbing the other patients, Cousins moved out of the hospital and into a room in a hotel across the street. There he continued with his unusual regimen of daily laughter.

The experiment was a tremendous success. Cousins had been told that he would never be able to move freely again, but within months he was walking, swimming and back at his old job again. Just as important in scientific terms was the fact that with the aid of his doctor, Cousins managed to show that his laughter had a useful, positive, practical effect on his physical condition. The hospital laboratory showed that by laughing, Cousins had succeeded in reducing the amount of inflammatory change in his body. He had actually managed to laugh himself better.

As I have already said, scientists still don't know why laughter has such a useful effect. It has been suggested that laughter may help by improving respiration, by lowering blood pressure and, possibly, by increasing the supply of specific types of internally produced hormones. It may be that laughter works by diverting attention away from the pain. It may be that the very act of flexing the facial muscles into a smile may produce a genuine and calming effect on the nervous system, heart rate and respiratory system. (Don't dismiss this theory: next time you're feeling miserable or in pain try putting a really cheerful smile on to your face. You'll find that it really does help. Try making your eyes sparkle with laughter and you'll notice the effect even more.)

We are going to have to wait for scientists to do more research before we know exactly how laughter can have such a positive effect on pain. But meanwhile it seems silly not to take full advantage of the fact that laughter is an effective therapy; it does help eradicate pain.

And it has several other advantages too: it doesn't cost anything, and there aren't any side effects.

Taken from Natural Pain Control by Vernon Coleman

Natural Pain Control is available as a paperback and a laminated hardback

Copyright Vernon Coleman June 2022