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SPECIAL EMBARGO FOR RELEASE: 10 a.m. (ET) Thursday, February 21, 2002

Laughter Tested as Pain Therapy for Children

Media Advisory: To contact Margaret Stuber, M.D., call Kim Irwin at 310-206-2805 or email at kirwin@mednet.ucla.edu. On the day of the briefing, call the AMA’s Science News Department at 312/464-5374.

NEW YORK—The old adage "Laughter is the best medicine" may be true when it comes to helping children cope with pain, according to Margaret Stuber, M.D., a researcher with the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Laughter seems to induce a relaxation response in the autonomic nervous system [the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary functions of the body]. We think it could be used to help children who are undergoing painful procedures or who suffer from pain-expectation anxiety," says Dr. Stuber, professor of psychiatry and biobehavior sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"In the future, watching humorous videos could become a standard component of some medical procedures," says Dr. Stuber, who released the results today of a new study on laughter’s pain diminishing effects, at an American Medical Association media briefing on pain management.

The program, Rx Laughter, is a unique collaboration between the entertainment industry, pediatrics and psychiatry. "As a clinician, I am interested in preventing stress and anticipatory anxiety from simple procedures such as shots to complex procedures such as bone marrow aspirates. Rx Laughter’s goal is to ease ill children through some of these medical procedures and minimize the traumatic effects that the children experience. In some instances laughter may even reduce the amount of anesthesia necessary," describes Dr. Stuber. "Laughter could also be of benefit for children with chronic pain, reducing need for medications, and improving functional status."

The Rx Laughter team, comprised of Dr. Stuber, Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer (Professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Anesthesiology, and Director of the UCLA Pediatric Pain Program at the Mattel UCLA Children’s Hospital), and Sherry Dunay Hilber (Creator, Founder and President of Rx Laughter and veteran primetime network comedy executive), has been working on an application of this work by setting up a system for children in medical isolation to communicate with each other while watching humorous videos.

"The potential benefit is not only from having the children laughing, but in being able to laugh together" says Dr. Stuber. "Laughter is at least as contagious as the infections we are trying to protect the children from!"

She adds: "Throughout my career, I’ve been studying trauma responses in children with illnesses requiring many painful procedures. Interestingly, some children are less easily traumatized than others. We are looking into the factors involved in resiliency so we can reduce the traumatic impact of treatment."

Dr. Stuber expects Rx Laughter, which includes numerous classic and contemporary videos, will be helpful to children who suffer from serious conditions such as cancer, cerebral palsy, congenital orthopedic problems, orthopedic injuries or burns. She says that reducing pain not only helps in the short term, but also helps in the psychological adjustment for months and years afterward.

Rx Laughter is looking at laughter in several different ways:

  • how amused the children are
  • how much they laugh
  • the physiological and psychological responses to that laughter

"We are evaluating both the behaviors and the thoughts. Does it matter how funny they think it is or does it matter more how much they laugh? They are related but they are not the same," says Dr. Stuber. "Similarly, how much they judge something hurts may be different than how long they can tolerate the pain."

During the briefing, Dr. Stuber will discuss the specific relationships between humor, laughter, pain perception and pain tolerance observed in the initial study group. She will also discuss data now being analyzed on the effect of laughter on cortisol levels. Elevation of cortisol is an indication of stress response; consequently, most people in pain have an immediate cortisol rise.

"We are determining when in the procedure Rx Laughter needs to be applied. For instance, did the protective effects of watching comedy before a procedure carry through? It appears that watching the video during the procedure is the most effective," says Dr. Stuber.

Dr. Stuber recommends that parents learn something from their child’s innate coping skills. "Try to laugh with your child. Use laughter to get out of a confrontation or a grim moment. It will make both of you feel better. Laughter may indeed be the best medicine," she concludes.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Stuber has received an unrestricted gift from Comedy Central, which has supported the pilot phase. For more information see: www.rxlaughter.org.

Note: Rx Laughter™ is a registered trademark of Sherry Dunay Hilber. 2002 All Rights Reserved.

For more information, contact the Science News Department at 312/464-5374



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