The Laugh Track
Doctors are studying the therapeutic use of humor in relieving pain
Article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal;
Imagine a pain killer that could treat a variety of ailments, available
without a prescription, whose only side effects are chuckles and giggles.
The cost? At most, the cost of a video. UCLA researchers are hoping humor will prove to be a miracle pill in a study examining a tantalizing premise. What if something that makes you feel good can stop you from feeling bad?
"They're testing the theory in a pain lab at UCLA Medical Center, where healthy children are asked to submerge their hands in frigid ice water.
Watching videos, ranging from dlips of old Marx Brothers films to "The Simpsons" helps the youngsters endure the ice bath. The researchers hope it ultimately will help ease the pain of kids sick with cancer and other debilititating diseases, and maybe even help them heal.
Preliminary results indicate the kids watching funny videos were able to keep their hands in the ice bath 40 percent longer. The idea for the study came from a former TV sitcom executive.
It was an instant hit with Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer a pediatric pain specialist, and colleague Dr. Margaret Stuber, a UCLA psychiatry professor.
"We looked at each other and said, "Gee, why didn't we think of this," Zeltzer said. "It makes perfect sense."
Some researchers believe humor works simply as a distraction. They point out that other studies have shown that other kinds of emotion...even sadness or disgust...have a similar effect.
Stuber calls that "a very legitimate question," but says there are suggestions that humor may be able to produce long-term changes.
The notion that humor might actually produce healing-enhancing changes in the body is gaining respect among some scientists in a field called psychoneuroimmunology, which studies interactions between the brain and the body's disease-fighting immune system
Prominent humor-health researcher Lee Berk says the notion that entertainment may be healing is actually very old, dating at least to the ancient Greeks, who used to build hospitals next to amphitheaters for the benefit of patients.
Bert, an assistant adjunct professor of family medicine at the University of California at Irvine, says he coined the term eustress..."eu" meaning "good" in Greek...to define what happens to the body when it feels mirthful... the opposite of stress.
In a stressful or painful situation, the body increases production of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephine. That in turn causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
Research has shown that stress can also inhibit the body's immune system and make people prone to illness. Some studies also suggest that humor just might have the opposite effect.
A Japanese study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Assciation, found that skin welts shrank in allergy patients who watched Charlie Chaplin's comedic classic "Modern Times."
And, Maryland researchers reported last year that people with healthy hearts were more likely to laugh in humorous situations than people with heart disease. Though the finding may simply suggest that having heart disease makes people feel less like laughing, the scientists think it also could mean that having a sense of humor somehow protects the heart.
"Maybe science is starting to catch up to intuition," said Berk. The late journalist/author Norman Cousins laid the groundwork with his pioneering 1979 book, "Anatome of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient," describing how laughter helped reduce his pain from a debilitating illness.
Former TV executive Sherry Hilber, who worked on such shows as "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement" brought the research idea to UCLA, where Cousins worked when he died in 1990.
With her show-biz connections, Hilber lined up funding and support from relatives of such comedy greats as Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin and Lou Costello.
"If my dad were here, I know he would be the first one rallying and probably carrying videos "by the truckload" to the hospital, said Chris Costello, the comedian's daughter.
In the UCLA study, the researchers are gauging the impact of humor on the physiologic responses to stress in 30 children, ages 8 to 18.
The scientists are examining changes in heart rate, blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the children's saliva in response to watching the videos. All three normatlly rise in response to stress or pain, but Zeltzer said she expects humor will diminish that effect.
Stuber and Zeltzer hope to continue the research by studying sick children, with hopes that humor will alleviate their pain and perhaps strengthen their immune systems. The result could mean smaller doses of narotic pain medication, shorter hospital stays and better quality of life, Zeltzer said.
Children are ideal subjects because their biologic systems are still forming, she said. The experiment could thus act as a "biologic template" and permanently improve the way they respond to pain and disease, she said.
The UCLA researchers are seeking funding for their study's next phase...and that has been a stumbling block for others researching the therapeutic uses of humor.
Drug companies fund a substantial portion of medical research, but unless some genius figures out how to bottle humor, "they're not interested in funding this." said University of Western Ontario psychologist Rod A Martin. "There's no money in this for them."