5 Simple Ways to Trick Yourself into Not Feeling Pain
In today's pill-popping culture, it's almost an involuntary reflex to reach straight for the meds whenever something ails us in the slightest. But it turns out there are other, unexpected ways to reduce pain, and we're not referring to your grandpa's preferred method of "suck that shit up like we used to back before the world transformed into one giant pussy."
So for some easy pain reduction, remember to ...
Drink Coffee (Or Another Caffeinated Beverage)
Let's say you have one of your bi-annual urges to unglue yourself from the couch and get into shape. So you head to the gym and hit that shit hard -- treadmill, exercise bike, weight lifting, the rack ... just, everything. You feel pretty damn good about yourself -- right up until the next day, when holy shit your everything hurts. That's when you reach for the over-the-counter pain relievers or, depending upon your area of residence, maybe a more holistic approach. But it turns out you could have prevented the need for pain relief altogether by simply hyping yourself up on caffeine beforehand.
In one study, two groups of healthy volunteers signed up to perform some "damaging eccentric exercise" and have their level of pain intensity measured by researchers, who were presumably wearing scary clown masks. One group was given caffeine capsules equivalent to drinking two-and-a-half cups of coffee, while the other group was given placebo pills. At the end of the series of exercises, the researchers found a significant increase in the level of pain tolerance of those subjects who took the caffeine pills. The subjects also reported feeling more able to perform everyday activities like walking, sitting, climbing and descending stairs, otherwise known as all the shit you can't do the day after a suicidal workout without sobbing uncontrollably.
"Working out is obviously bad for you."
Holy crap, the ads were right! Mountain Dew really can let you do extreme sports! Or, at least make you feel less like shit the next day.
And, in fact, if you're less the "damaging eccentric exercise" type and more the "sit your ass in front of a computer screen" type (hey, we know where you're coming from), there's still good news for you. In another study, scientists had volunteers perform 90 minutes of fake computer tasks similar to the everyday tasks you might perform at an office -- tasks meant to generate pain in the shoulders, neck, forearms and wrists of the volunteers. Before the start of the experiments, scientists allowed the volunteers to drink coffee ... not to study the effect of coffee on pain, but "to avoid unpleasant effects of caffeine deprivation, e.g. decreased vigor and alertness, sleepiness, and fatigue."
"There's creamer in the fridge and heroin in the top drawer if you need some."
And that's when they noticed something unexpected in their results: The people who drank coffee reported a lower intensity of pain than the people who didn't. Whether or not the subjects reported chronic pain before the study, those who drank the coffee reported less pain on average than those who didn't. And there, dear Office Sociopath, is proof positive that you are causing your co-workers actual physical pain by not refilling the office coffee maker after you take the last cup.
Look at the Part of Your Body That's Hurting
Think about your last injury -- maybe the ramp-induced cracked rib you got trying to ramp several school busses, or perhaps you sliced your finger open while learning to twirl your butterfly knife around like a badass. Whatever it was, chances are you struggled between one of two natural human reactions: The first was to look at anything but the horror movie levels of gore suddenly spurting from your pinkie, while the other was to more closely inspect the damage to assess whether you'd managed to shatter your dreams of one day becoming a world-famous stunt driver slash professional knife fighter. Well, only one of those two reactions can actually reduce the amount of pain you'll feel.
This is another one of those times when you can take advantage of the oddities of your brain's wiring. While our previous article on the subject of pain pointed out how touching your wounds can help you mentally get a grasp on whatever pain you're experiencing, other studies have found that you can reduce the pain by simply looking at your own body.
"Hey, that works out great because I do that pretty much constantly anyway."
In one study, scientists created a mirror contraption that allowed them to manipulate what test subjects saw, and then got down to the science of causing pain to the test subjects' right hands using low-powered infrared lasers (because if you have "infrared pain rays" sitting around your lab, you need to use them for good before a superhero comes knocking). When participants looked at the reflection of their left hand (making it appear as if they were looking at their currently-under-laser-fire right hand), they were able to tolerate a significantly higher amount of pain than when looking at another object. And just to be clear, for the analgesic effect to be triggered, subjects had to be looking at their own hand -- looking at someone else's didn't work.
In a similar experiment performed on subjects suffering from chronic back pain, scientists studied how being able to see their back as they underwent a painful medical procedure affected how they perceived the associated pain. And what they found was that simply being able to see their back -- something that can be a challenge unless you're Mr. Fantastic -- significantly reduced the perceived amount of pain reported by the subjects.
"Hey, this does work! My hands feel fantastic now!"
Scientists are still trying to work out just how this disconnect from the parts of our body that are experiencing pain affects our perception of said pain, but one thing's for certain: Your default reaction of staring at the ceiling and screaming for Mommy whenever something hurts isn't doing you any favors. If you get over your squeamishness and look at your horrible wound, it'll hurt less.
Picture this: You awaken in the middle of the night. You have to pee. Bad. You stumble out of bed ... and immediately stub your toe on the dresser. What's your first reaction? If you're anything like us, your first reaction is to howl phrases so vile that your mother (three states away) spontaneously awakens and bursts into tears. What you probably do not do is laugh. Laughing while in pain is what movie characters do to let you know they're insane (see: The Joker). But you know what? Those crazy bastards have it right.
Because while "laughter is the best medicine" is such a cliche that it pains us to even type it, we do think we have an idea where the saying comes from. While laughter won't shrink your tumor or make your carotid artery stop gushing, it does increase your ability to tolerate pain. It's not just because the laughter distracts you from the knife in your chest, the act of laughing releases endorphins, the body's natural pain killers. You will physically feel less pain if you can make yourself laugh.
"Oh my God, why did I choose to fuck a bear trap?! Hahahaha!"
In a series of six tests, researchers studied a group of volunteers in both a natural setting and in the laboratory. Five of the studies involved watching funny videos versus, say, a documentary or a game of golf. The sixth study sampled actors and audiences at the live theatrical performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
What the researchers found was that test subjects who watched the funny videos had a higher pain threshold compared to those who watched videos of the un-sidesplitting variety. Furthermore, as little as 15 minutes of laughter was enough to increase pain tolerance by a whopping 10 percent.
Look at her. She doesn't even notice she's been cropped in half.
There is a catch, though: The laughter has to be a really good laugh -- you know, the kind that comes from way deep down in your belly and leaves you feeling breathless, the same effect as a good bout of exercise. So, yes, it has to be a maniacal laugh, it can't just be a casual chuckle of a sane person. Try it! The confused looks on the faces of bystanders should just make the whole thing funnier.
Convince Yourself the Pain is Helping
We don't want to fall into some "power of positive thinking" bullshit here, but the truth is that the body really does register two different types of pain. The soreness of an infection or nasty bruise doesn't register the same way as the soreness of a workout -- the latter is, after all, beneficial. And your brain registers "good" pain differently. So your ability to withstand pain is directly related to the meaning you assign to said pain. Pain resulting from recovering after a surgery, for example, somehow seems less bad than the pain that led up to requiring said surgery in the first place.
To prove this, researchers conducted a series of tests in which they induced pain by restricting the supply of blood to the arms of two sets of volunteers. In order to earn their cookie (we assume), each volunteer had to try to tolerate the pain for as long as they possibly could, which averaged around 14 minutes. The first group was erroneously led to believe the experiment would have a detrimental effect to their arm, while the second group was told that the procedure would be beneficial by strengthening their arm muscles, and also that the greater their pain, the greater the benefit they would obtain from the procedure.
"OK, now the procedure involves us punching you in the face a whole bunch. Ready?"
At the end of the tests, researchers found that the pain tolerance of the second group was significantly higher than that of the first. So then they did it again. And again. And again. And even after four rounds of tests, the pain tolerances of the second group did nothing but increase -- simply because the participants in that group believed with all their hearts that they would lopsidedly walk out of the sessions with one massive Schwarzenegger-arm.
Obviously the people in the study had the advantage of someone else lying to them, and for you to make it work you need to come up with an effective way to lie to yourself ("Slicing my finger off has taught me a valuable lesson about knife safety that will benefit me in the future!") but honestly, lying to yourself is a valuable skill that everyone should have anyway.
"You're not a racist. You're not a racist. You're not a racist."
Look at a Picture of Something Horrible
Imagine yourself in the dentist's chair. The stabbing, the bleeding, the nails-on-chalkboard sound that's echoing against the inside of your skull and is coming from your own freaking teeth. Now, wrench your head a little to the left. That's it. What do you see there, on the walls? A framed photo of flowers. A cityscape at night time, perhaps. Maybe a wacky cartoon, or a picture of a puppy intended to pacify the younger patients. The point being, clearly the dentist has tried to decorate the room with calming pictures intended to distract you from the fact that Satan is currently tap dancing on your pearly whites.
"Just look at the kittens, you whiny fuck."
Does it work? Yes, sort of. But you know what would work even better? Torture pics.
Scientists conducted experiments in which they had volunteers look at a collection of photographic slides ranging from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant while they simultaneously induced pain by subjecting the volunteers to cold pressor tests (a common pain tolerance test that involves shoving your hand into a basin full of extremely cold water and seeing how long you can hold it there). What they found was that the volunteers who viewed the unpleasant images were able to tolerate the pain significantly better than their counterparts who viewed the pleasant or neutral images. Basically, the shock value of the unpleasant slides reduced the participants' perceived pain.
"Your insurance won't cover painkillers, so I'm gonna pop Shoah into the DVD player."
Look, if you're going to try to give somebody something to distract them from the pain, then you need to distract them. Looking at a calming Norman Rockwell painting of a puppy snoozing in a basket isn't going to distract you from shit. But a picture you find alarming or disturbing demands your attention. So rather than grabbing the most uplifting posters he can find in the clearance bin at the local Wal-Mart, your dentist or physical therapist would actually serve you better by visiting the bargain DVD bin and playing Saw on an infinite loop instead.
For more solutions better than aspirin, check out 6 Random Things (Other Than Drugs) That Reduce Pain. Or discover 5 Ways to Trick Your Body Into Being More Awesome.
Speaking of hacking your brain, check out this video from this article's sponsor, Virgin Mobile.