Researchers from Jena University in Germany say it is not only painful memories and associations that put our pain memory on alert, words can do the trick as well.

"Even verbal stimuli lead to reactions in certain areas of the brain", says Dr. Thomas Weiss from the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena. As soon as we hear words like "tormenting", "gruelling" or "plaguing", those areas in the brain are being activated which process the corresponding pain.

Using functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRT), researchers investigated how healthy subjects processed words associated with experiencing pain. In order to prevent reactions based on a plain negative affect the subjects were also confronted with negatively connotated words like "terrifying", "horrible" or "disgusting" besides the proper pain words.

"Subject performed two tasks", explained Maria Richter, the study's lead author. "In a first task, subjects were supposed to imagine situations which correspond to the words."

In a second task, subjects were also reading the words but they were distracted by a brain-teaser. "In both cases we could observe a clear activation of the pain matrix in the brain by pain-associated words", Richter said. Other negatively connotated words, however, did not activate those regions.

"These findings show that words alone are capable of activating our pain matrix",  Weiss says. To save painful experiences is of biological advantage since it allows us to avoid painful situations in the future which may be dangerous. "However, our results suggest as well that verbal stimuli have a more important meaning than we have thought so far."


Citation: Richter et al., 'Do words hurt? Brain activation during the processing of pain-related words', Pain, February 2010, 148(2), 198-205; doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.08.009