Laughter as the best medicine

Sunday, September 2, 2001

Imagine a painkiller that could treat a variety of ailments, available without a prescription, whose only side effects are chuckles, giggles and maybe even guffaws.

The cost? At most, the price 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 clips 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 debilitating 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.

Former TV sitcom executive Sherry Hilber, who worked on "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement." had the idea for the study.

Healing help for body

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 more 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.

Berk, 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, or the opposite of stress.

In a stressful or painful situation, the body increases production of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. 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 earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association 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 author Norman Cousins laid the groundwork with his pioneering 1979 book, describing how laughter helped reduce his pain from a debilitating joint disease.

Berk, who was among the first to use science to help explain Cousins' findings, has a cartoon he likes to show people, depicting a doctor telling a patient, "Take two Laurel and Hardy tapes and one Abbott and Costello and call me in the morning."

That's the kind of advice the UCLA researchers hope to one day prescribe. "That's certainly really within the realm of possibility," Zeltzer said. "You don't have the side effects that you have with drugs and it would be cheaper."

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