Saying ‘ow’ can lessen pain’s punch

"Based on our results, I think it would be useful for clinicians and health care professionals to talk to patients undergoing a painful procedure. By engaging them in speech, they would help their patients better tolerate the procedure," says Annett Schirmer. (Credit: Tom Magliery/Flickr)

A new study has discovered a way to alleviate pain by up to 20 percent—just say “ow.”

“One day I kicked the chair and stubbed my toe . . . so naturally I just went ‘ow’ . . . I wondered if that ‘ow’ exclamation actually did anything for my pain experience. Did it lessen the pain? If not, why am I doing it?” says Genevieve Swee, who completed the study during her final year in the National University of Singapore’s psychology department.

Past studies have shown that vocalizing pain is an automatic response that serves as a communication signal to others, such as to attract help, ward off an aggressor, or declare defeat.

Because saying “ow” requires little articulatory control while maximizing volume output, it’s easy and effective to use when in pain. However, there was reason to believe that vocal expressions of pain serve additional non-communicative functions, such as helping to cope with discomfort.

Swee and Associate Professor Annett Schirmer decided to test the hypothesis through a series of cold pressor tests. Their findings appear in the Journal of Pain.

Fifty-five student participants immersed one hand into ice-cold water. They were then tested in five scenarios which included saying “ow;” sitting passively; pressing a button; listening to a recording of themselves saying “ow;” and listening to another person saying “ow.”

The experiment finds that participants who sat passively could keep their hand submerged for an average of 24 seconds. Saying “ow” increased the duration by about five seconds, and pressing a button, by about four seconds.

Hearing the word “ow,” whether from a pre-recorded voice of oneself or listening to another person, did not increase how long they could keep their hand submerged.

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The findings could have important applications in the medical field. “Based on our results, I think it would be useful for clinicians and health care professionals to talk to patients undergoing a painful procedure. By engaging them in speech, they would help their patients better tolerate the procedure,” says Schirmer.

More research is needed, however, to understand the underlying implications.

One possible reason for the findings is that the mental processes associated with saying “ow” compete with the mental processes resulting from the painful stimulus, thereby reducing one’s awareness of pain.

Source: National University of Singapore