The next time you accidentally smash your left hand while you’re hammering away in the garage, stare at it: Simply looking at your body reduces pain, according to a new study from the University College London.
In the experiment, researchers placed heat probes on volunteers’ hands to see how long they could put up with the pain. The volunteers stared at the opposite hand in a mirror, so they couldn’t see the probe. When the volunteers looked at their hands, they were able to endure more pain.
“The image that the brain forms of our own body has a strong effect on the experience of pain,” says Dr. Flavia Mancini, lead author of the study. This indicates an interaction between parts of the brain that process vision and pain, though there isn’t enough research to explain how it works, she says.
But staring directly into the eye of danger the next time you have an injury isn’t your only solution to feeling better. Here are three other surprising, proven ways to kick pain without popping a single ibuprofen.
Trust in Ginger
We’ve talked about the healing abilities of ginger at great length before; with compounds that fight nausea and colon cancer, it’s one of our 40 Foods with Super Powers. Well, add another power to its arsenal: In 2010, researchers at the University of Georgia found that taking a daily ginger supplement (2 grams) reduces exercise-induced pain by 25 percent. Researchers say that’s likely because of ginger’s anti-inflammatory compounds. So the next time you pull a muscle doing one too many deadlifts, head to your spice rack instead of the medicine cabinet. Here’s our recommendation: Solaray Ginger Root Extract 250 mg. ($6.41 for 60 capsules
Admire the Mona Lisa
Maybe every hospital should come with an art gallery. In a 2008 study, Italian researchers showed participants a series of paintings—some rated as beautiful, and some as ugly—and asked the participants to contemplate the paintings while getting zapped with tiny lasers in their hands. The participants said they felt less pain while looking at the masterpieces as compared to the eyesores, a correlation also confirmed by electrodes measuring the participants’ brain activity. Mancini relates it to her own experiment. “Pain is a very complex experience, one that’s highly subjective and variable. Perceptual factors—simply what we’re looking at—can influence pain.” Though more research is needed to explain why, a recent study from Emory University suggests that viewing art triggers the brain’s reward system, which has been linked to regulating pain and pleasure. Feeling a little sore?
Swoon for Your Soul Mate
Love hurts? Hardly. Last year, researchers at Stanford University found that being in love might actually dull the sensation of pain. In the study, 15 college students who said they were “in love”—or in the first nine months of a romantic relationship—experienced more pain in their hand while looking at a photo of an acquaintance than when they saw a photo of their boyfriend or girlfriend. That’s because when they looked at their loved ones, the students brains’ reward centers seemed to be running on overdrive, and they couldn’t process pain signals as well. “Since love activates reward centers and reduces pain, it may explain to some extent why people stay in relationships that are painful,” says Jarred Younger, Ph.D., of Stanford, one of the study’s authors.
—Andrew Daniels, with additional reporting by Christen Brownlee