Spring 2015

The “OW” Factor 

Our instinctive reaction to pain has benefits

Why is it that we instinctively cry “ouch” or “ow” the moment we stub a toe or bang a finger? The answer may lie in research conducted at the National University of Singapore, with results published in the Journal of Pain earlier this year.

Researchers asked each of 56 test participants to submerge his or her hand in painfully cold water four times. Participants 300W_OW! copywere given a choice of four responses: say “ow,” push a button, listen to a recording of someone saying “ow” or stay passive and silent. Those participants who said “ow” and those who pushed a button were able to withstand pain better than those who made other choices—an average of 30 seconds versus 23 seconds.

The researchers theorized that the advantage may have stemmed from the way that muscle movements used to exclaim or push a button disrupted pain messages. Daniel Carr, director of the Pain Research, Education and Policy program at Tufts, agrees. He was quoted in the Huffington Post about the experiment, which he described as “a legitimate finding and a well-designed study.” When you move, you can’t help but be aware of what you’re doing, he suggested, and “that awareness interferes to some degree with the awareness of the pain.”

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