The pain reducing power of humour

A symphony of bad decision making

I had occasion to be in A&E yesterday.  Unfortunately I slipped on my stairs and sailed down the last four steps in inelegant fashion. It was a symphony of bad decision making –  books on the stairs, arms full, and too much haste! Trying not to catastrophise I told myself that the damage was probably just ligamentous, but the clearly deformed leg told a different tale. The pain was horrible, but telling myself that I was safe and the worst case scenario was that it was broken, did help.

Amazonian air disasters and A&E

Opposite me in the A&E department a man sat glancing at the TV from  time to time. Others were transfixed. I became aware of the narrator speaking in a breathless manner describing  two planes on a potential collision course over the Amazon jungle. With tones ever more grave he described in detail the human error, computer failure and pilot inexperience leading up to the crash.  Ending with the statement that the Amazon jungle was not a good place to crash your plane! There’s a good place to crash your plane, I asked myself?

My ultimate SIM

I was thinking that the Air Crash Investigators might not be the most prudent programme to be showing people who are already stressed, worried and possibly in pain when the man opposite me, in dead pan fashion said, “Don’t worry, love, Medical Mishaps is coming on next!” The A&E waiting room fell about laughing. Worrying about my leg and the consequences of the injury  was a heady enough concoction without the disaster celebrants on TV. But, in one fell swoop the humourous banter dissolved the atmosphere of anxiety and replaced it with something altogether less threatening.  And so homeward bound with a box set of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy under one arm. Humour; it is my ultimate SIM. It makes everything better.

Does it work for you?

-Blanaid Coveney

Blanaid Coveney is a practicing physiotherapist in Dublin, Ireland. Her professional interests include epidemiology, pain and all things brain related.



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5 Responses to “The pain reducing power of humour”

  1. EG Physio

    Even airlines have more sense than to show ‘Snakes on a Plane’ during a flight. ‘Psychological priming’!

    It’s a good point you make regarding humour. It really short-circuits anxiety patterns quite rapidly. Unfortunately it’s just as hard to apply as any good technique. It has to be spontaneous, and that means that the therapist must be in a very light-hearted frame of mind, free of serious analytical thoughts and judgments.

    I’ve been lucky to observe one of the country’s top Physios on a good day. The amount of gut laughing that came from the treatment room really bowled me over. Hysterical at times. Nothing like ‘Patch Adams’, in case you’re wondering. The movie character played by Robin Williams portrayed a contrived wackiness and irreverance that is not actually healing… or funny! So the whole thing is quite nuanced, and I’m quite sure there’s an enormous amount more to the science of humour than I’m trying to say here.

    Good subject for discussion. Hope the leg is feeling ok.

  2. davidbutler0noi

    Delicious story Blanaid,

    Now that you have giggled your way out of pain, the important thing is to continue the good therapy and use humour to heal. There is a bit of evidence around suggesting that mirthful laughter is an immunoenhancement. Natural killer cells (scary terms isn’t it?) just flee in the wake of humour! Perhaps we could suggest that laughter may make you heal faster and stronger.

    I have been reading a bit about this (why is most of this material in the alternative leaning journals anyway?) I was impressed with one paper presenting evidence that it is not just a smile or a quiet Christmas ho ho that you need – it’s laughing out LOUD! Stretching the evidence, may I suggest a prescription of morning giggles and lunchtime titters building up to at least one daily climactic deep and lingering belly laugh with your good mates in a safe place! This should not be too hard for you!

    Now how about the graded imagery while you are immobilised?

    All the best with the rehab


  3. Blanaid@fiorilass

    Thanks David,
    I used the Graded Motor Imagery (GMI) pre op as a sort of test case, using myself as a sort of N of 1 trial! As I waited 2 days for the surgery moving was difficult. The fragments could be felt clunking painfully on every movement (an all time DIM!) I used left right discrimination, explicit motor imagery and progressed on to the mirror pre operatively. Very quickly post op I did the same. Within 3 hours I tried using the mirror. When the pain would not settle during the night I found the mirror in particular helped to reduce it rather spectacularly from over a 5 to a 1 on the VAS, allowing much needed sleep. It seemed to affect the swelling too which was a huge relief. As many who have had a plaster on the foot know when the foot swells the little toes become compressed first. Doing exercises in the mirror, in particular, spreading the little toes out gave great relief. Within a week the pain has drastically reduced. I am hoping GMI will allow me to hit the ground running (!) when the cast/boot is removed.

    On the humour front I can absolutely say it reduces pain for me. On discharge I found myself watching Laurel and Hardy’s County Hospital. There is a legendary scene where in an effort to crack some nuts Stan lifts the weight holding Ollie’s leg that is in traction. Naturally total chaos ensues, with doctors dangling out of windows, Stan crying and Ollie being swung around the room like a ragdoll ending up in a heap of bed splinters. It is really extremely funny. Interesting it is Ollie’s right leg and I could actually feel my mirror neurons flexing their muscles and getting ready for a bit of action. The foot was zinging but the sketch was so side splittingly (or belly laugh) funny that the pain never came, just tears of laughter.

    Best Wishes


    For those who want a really good laugh here is the link for Laurel & Hardy’s County Hospital. Mayhem begins at 6mins 56. Enjoy!

  4. Chalice and socket | noijam

    […] dear friend Blanaid Coveney, author of a number of wonderful posts on topics ranging from red haired myths to musical improvisation, recently sent us a link to […]


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