The Experience of Pain & Choosing Our Words Wisely

Chad Shafer, PT & Override Advisor

Expect to learn the following throughout this article:

  • How words can change our pain experience
  • Why overly focusing on pain can create more of it
  • How to take one step towards relief from chronic pain

One of the most common complaints people seek health care for is pain. Now is the time to begin to rethink pain so that we can redefine our lives and the way we live them.

According to the International Association For The Study Of Pain1, Pain is “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.”

Experiencing Pain & Words

Do you remember the old saying "Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you”?

Well someone very clever also wrote,"Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you, well unless you believe them, then they can destroy you.” This sums up why and how words5 can be intimately connected with our experience of chronic pain.

In a research article published in the journal of Pain in 2009, titled “Do words hurt? Brain activation during the processing of pain-related words6,” the researchers explored how words directly contribute and change our experience of pain. These researchers were very clever because they measured this by using fMRI imaging which measures the amount of neuronal activity within regions of the brain associated with pain processing such as the dorsal ACC (dACC), left anterior IC, bilateral inferior frontal gyrus, & dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Why This Study Matters in Chronic Pain

The scientists involved placed subjects in two distinct groups and subjected the study participants to 3 types of pain-related words: neutral, negative affective, and positive affective words. These three categories of words were chosen because of the known link between emotions and pain processing7.

The subjects were placed in two main categories:

  1. The imagination group
  2. The distraction group

Imagination group:

This group was presented with 1 of the 3 types of words on a screen (neutral, positive, and negative), and were instructed to imagine an experience or situation that may involve the word displayed on the screen in front of them. For example, if they saw the word “destruction” they would imagine a building collapsing, or if the word happiness appeared, they may recall an experience in their life that brought them immense joy.

The Distraction group: 

This group was presented with a specific task to perform, such as counting back from 10, and throughout the performance of this task, words such as destruction and happiness were flashed in the background.

What Researchers Found Can Help You with Chronic Pain

Remember the fMRI tool that measures brain activity during specific tasks we mentioned earlier? 

Well, when the researchers examined the brain activity of the two groups, the regions of the brain well-known to be involved with processing pain had higher levels of activation in the imagination group compared to the distraction group.

As we promised in the outline of this article, this is something that we can harness in our every day lives in order to modulate and change our experience of pain. If we focus 100% of our energy, life, and effort on “fighting” the pain, these regions of the brain can become highly neuronaly active and produce more pain as a result.

If you have experienced persistent pain such as fibromyalgia, chronic lower back pain, or persistent facial pain8, you know this all too well…… 

How many times has your medical provider asked you about your pain level from a 0-10 scale? This is an example of being in the “imagination” group because we can become hyper-focused on pain, and in turn experience more of it. 

Hyperfocusing on pain can lead to destructive habits and rapidly decrease our quality of life. Creating some type of “distraction” group within our own lives can be very helpful throughout the journey of chronic pain. Some examples of this include learning a new skill, taking up a breathing practice, reaching out to old friends, or learning a new physical movement. This does not mean we are ignoring our pain, it simply means that we are prioritizing what we know about science and the brain to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life.


  1. Definition of pain:

  1. Pain & The Neuromatrix

  1. Neurosignature

  1. Bioplasticity

  1. Words Hurt

  1. Do Words Hurt?,words%20compared%20to%20other%20words.

  1. Link between emotions and pain processing

  1. Persistent Facial Pain,teeth%2C%20without%20any%20structural%20correlate.

Posted on 
June 30, 2023

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