Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 17 November 2019

Who needs painkillers? Cross your fingers and swear - 5 weird ways to end pain

Don't take the Pill if you have migraines
Don't take the Pill if you have migraines

Olivia Goldhill

Scientists have discovered that crossing your fingers isn’t just for good luck, but can help alleviate pain.

A UCL study published in the science journal Current Biology found that feelings of a pain in the finger disappeared when one digit was crossed over another, suggesting that the simple action can confuse the way the brain processes sensation.

Just as optical illusions can trick the mind into misreading an image, there are various techniques that create sensory illusions and help reduce perceptions of pain. Here are a few other surprising methods to end pain.


Zayn Malik
Zayn Malik

Bad language is a remarkably good at easing pain, according to a study published in the journal NeuroReport.

Researchers tested how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water, with some students repeating a neutral word and others repeatedly swearing. The volunteers reported less pain while swearing and kept their hand submerged for an average 40 seconds longer.

"Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it," says psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University, who led the study. "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”

Look at a photo of Zayn Malik

Kissing couple
Kissing couple

Or, if you’re not a heartbroken One Direction fan, then a photo of your own loved one. A psychological study from the University of California found that looking at a photo of someone you love can ease feelings of pain. Women in long-term relationships reported feeling less pain when looking at a photo of their romantic partner.

Think about sex

A vivid sexual fantasy can help double your pain threshold, according to a 1999 report from John Hopkins Medical School.

The guinea pigs for this study were once again students holding their hand in ice water, and those thinking of their favourite sexual fantasy were able to keep their hand submerged for an average of three minutes, compared to those just over one minute for those students with no thoughts of sex.

Students focusing on a sexual fantasy were also less anxious, depressed and angry throughout the study. Anaesthetist Peter Staats, who led the study, says that the research shows the power of emotion in treating patients.

"The biology underlying this theory relates to the idea that emotions are likely processed in the thalamus, a region of the brain also closely involved in processing pain responses,” he says.

Count out loud

A Japanese study found that patients who counted backward from 100 out loud during an injection experienced less pain than those who remained silent.

Of 46 patients who counted backwards, none said the injection hurt. In comparison, 19 out of the 46 patients who didn’t count complained of pain.

The study’s author, Tomoko Higashi, MD, from Yokohama City University Medical Center in Japan, says that counting might help relieve pain as it distracts the brain from processing painful sensations.

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