April 2, 2010 -- Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can hurt
you too, according to new research.
A new study suggests merely saying, "This may hurt a bit," before receiving
a shot may be enough to trigger a pain response in the brain long
before any actual pain is felt.
Researchers found hearing words that describe pain -- such as
"excruciating" or "grueling" -- activated the areas of the brain
that process the corresponding sensation.
"These findings show that words alone are capable of activating our pain
matrix," says researcher Thomas Weiss, a professor at the
Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, in Germany, in a news release. "Even verbal
stimuli lead to reactions in certain areas of the brain.”
In the study, published in Pain, researchers used functional magnetic
resonance tomography (fMRI) to examine how 16 healthy people processed words
associated with experiencing pain. The brain scans revealed which parts of the
brain were activated in response to hearing the words.
In the first experiment, researchers asked the participants to imagine
situations that corresponded with words associated with pain -- such as
"excruciating," "paralyzing," and "grueling" -- as well as negative but
non-pain associated words such as "dirty" and "disgusting" and neutral and
In the second experiment, the participants read the same words but were
distracted by a brainteaser.
The results showed that in both cases there was a clear response in the
brain's pain-processing centers with the words associated with pain, but there
was no such activity pattern in response to the other words.
Researchers say preserving painful experiences as memories in the brain may
have been an evolutionary response to allow humans to avoid painful situations
that might be dangerous.
"However, our results suggest as well that verbal stimuli have a more
important meaning than we have thought so far," says Weiss.
Researchers say the findings may be especially significant for people with
chronic pain disorders who tend to speak a lot about their painful experiences
with their health care providers. They say those conversations may intensify
the activity of the pain matrix in the brain and intensify the pain