Words Really Do Hurt

Study Shows Words Alone May Activate Pain Response in the Brain

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on April 02, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

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 positive words.

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 experience.