Ian Cleary

Words as Medicine

Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words CAN also hurt me

People are constantly focused on getting better at getting people better.

New techniques get reviewed, different medication tested, and technology trialled to improve patient outcomes.

Drugs are amazing. Machines that go ‘bing’ are very impressive but there are some areas that often don’t get the same attention even though though they are free and shown to be effective.

One of these areas that is of particular inetrest to me is the role that words & language play in our mental and physical health.

These include the words that are told to us (doctors, parents, media) and the ones we tell ourselves (thoughts, sayings, metaphors).

Repeatedly, research highlights that language IS medicine too. Words can hurt and words can heal.

Words can empower or disempower, they can give us confidence or steal it away. They can explain or complicate. But we are now seeing that their interaction with our brains can trigger physcial healing or disease. They should therefore be part of everyone’s healthcare plan.

In discussions I have with both doctors and patients, too often these lingusitic concepts are sidelined as a curiosity, and attention quickly brought back to ‘real’ medicine.

I have listed a few ‘curious’ studies and the question to ask is why aren’t these concepts being adopted.

One study showed what happens when nurses used positive words versus negative words in the hours after an operation.  The words were delivered like medicine, precise and timed. Some ‘received’ negative or positive words at various times after the surgery (starting at 3 hours up to 18 hours). Not sure if they were taken before or after meals J

When the words were carefully and intentionally controlled like this (in a sterile linguistic environment) the results were surprising.

Negative words used by the attending nurses showed an increase in pain intensity, morphine consumption, side effects and cortisol levels (stress hormone). But the impact of negative words trailed off after a few hours. Positive words shows no impact. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18612266?dopt=Abstract

Other studies show the impact of hearing pain related words (ouch, excruciating, seering, stabbing, burning, pain, painful etc) When the brain hears pain related words it is primed for what may be soon to follow. This can increase the pain experience. So ironically when the doctor says ‘This won’t hurt a bit’, the brain’s pain centres only hear the word hurt, and primes itself thus increasing the pain experience.

So the words that we hear  can influence our physical experience.

What about the words we use ourselves? What if we are regualrly using pain related words about our pain. Does that play any role in the pain persisting? After all we listen to ourselves more than we listen to any other person on the planet.

Studies clearly show that swearing reduces pain but only if you don’t normally swear.

Another area that highlights the role of our internal dialogues is chronic pain after surgery.

After surgery there is normally some acute pain as the body repairs. The pain should reduce then go. But sometimes pain persists well after the operation.

What causes this? You would think that the quality of the surgery or the severity of the injury would be the biggest indicator of whether a person will experience chronic (ongoing) pain after surgery. However one of the strongest predictors of ongoing post operative pain has to do with us: anxiety and fear of pain regularly show as the drivers for post operative peristent pain. So what we are saying to ourselves matters.

We are the only ones who have the ability to influence that. They are after all OUR words and thoughts.

We can even use our own words and thougths to over ride the influence of another person’s words.

Part of my work is showing people how to do just that. To take charge of not only their physical and emotional world but also their lingustic world.

Words are powerful medicine. Whether you are a doctor or a patient. Use them wisely Young Skywalker.


“Use your brain for a change – Self Directed Neuroplastic Change”

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