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Everybody hurts, but how we deal with pain is a whole ’nother story.
Western culture prizes the ability to suffer in silence, to grit your teeth and “take it like a man.” We view crying or screaming signs of weakness. But science suggests that bottling up your anguish makes you suffer more than you have to.
A recent study published in the Journal of Pain — the most badass academic journal of all time, at least going by its name — took a closer look at this phenomenon. What they found is pretty amazing.
In the study, researchers told subjects to immerse their hands in painfully cold water. During one trial, subjects were allowed to say “ow.” In another, they were only allowed to listen to a recording of someone saying “ow.” In a third trial, subjects were only allowed to push a button (that did nothing) and in the fourth (and final) trial the scientists forbid subjects from speaking at all.
Across the board, the subjects were able to tolerate the pain longer when they were allowed to vocalize their suffering.
Another fascinating study published in recent years used the same cold water immersion technique but allowed subjects to either swear or say a word they would use to describe a table when they plunged their hands into the icy water. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of subjects were able to withstand the cold water longer when they swore. (NB: Shouting “wooden!” or “useful!” isn’t very satisfying when you’re in pain.)
Cursing, like screaming, is a noise that most of us don’t like. Polite society in particular shuns it. So what is the analgesic effect of making noise — especially noise that’s considered to be socially inappropriate?
Unlike most other forms of speech, screams are routed through the amygdala, that almond-shaped area of the brain that processes our emotions. The amygdala also has an important role in — guess what — pain modulation.
Nat Strand, the director of the Scottsdale Liberty Hospital in Arizona, told me that stress and anxiety can amplify our experience of pain. “Being centered and relaxed can turn down the volume of pain, as can other coping mechanisms,” he said. “Some patients find it helpful to talk through procedures, as a sort of distraction. Even if you can’t yell, you want some sort of outlet for the energy of the pain.”
The human brain is a powerful organ, but it can’t do too many things at once. One of the leading theories about pain and vocalization holds that the parts of the brain we use for experiencing pain and the parts we use for mouth sounds overlap and we can’t do both simultaneously.
In other words, as long as you’re shouting, you may not be feeling pain. This is called “gate control theory,” and it’s a popular new concept in pain management.
The old-school conception of pain was a pretty simple one, like something you’d see in a cartoon in an elementary school textbook. You bonk your thumb with a hammer and a lightning bolt nerve rockets to your spine and then to your brain where it registers as painful.
Gate control posits a system of pain more complex than that. Impulses proceed to the spine normally, but once there they encounter a system of “gates” that can stop or weaken those signals before they reach the brain. Many different kinds of physical stimuli — from massage and acupuncture to the application of heat or cold — can help “close” these gates, restricting how much pain reaches our brains.
Some doctors also believe that signals coming from the brain can close them off involuntarily, as in the case of hypnosis-based pain management. Even though you can’t consciously open and close the pain gates, your nervous system has its own ways of throttling the amount you feel. When you scream or curse, it could help close some of those gates, blocking pain impulses from passing through to the brain where they’re translated into feeling. Screaming might be one of the ways the brain signals the body to shut down the transmission of pain. Science is still figuring out exactly how this stuff works, but you can see it’s fascinating.
The end result of all this research is that pain isn’t a one-way street. The next time you stub a toe or burn a finger, let that pain out — After all, it’s good for you.