August 15, 2016 / Felix L. Nuñez, MD, MPH
Many of us have heard the old adage “laughter is the best medicine,” but do doctors actually prescribe laughter to patients? In reality most doctors don’t, but there is evidence that shows that maybe we should.
As in many families, laughter was an important and memorable part of my childhood. Whether it was sitting together watching reruns of I Love Lucy or the antics of John Belushi on SNL, few memories are more imprinted in my mind than when as a family we enjoyed an evening laughing ourselves to tears. There is something about laughter that cuts through our generational and cultural differences and brings people together. But beyond the power of humor to bring people together, there is evidence that laughter can have healing effects on our minds and bodies.
For example, Norman Cousins’ book, Anatomy of an Illness, brought forth huge interest and debate into the power of laughter not only as a means to provide comfort, but actually heal diseases. Cousins was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an incurable and fatal spinal column illness of unknown cause. The disease was a serious disabling illness of the joints for which traditional treatment at the time provided little relief. In frustration, Cousins developed his own treatment program where humor was a critical component. In Cousins’ own experience he found that 10 minutes of laughter brought about two hours of pain free sleep, a result for which there is support in medical research. While it is important to work with your primary care to craft a treatment program that maximizes your chances of healing, there is no doubt that laughter can at the least bring momentary stress or pain relief.
Medical studies have now explored the power of laughter in coping with difficult illness, helping to reduce depression, and improving patient’s ability to participate in their healing. Additionally, studies have looked at how laughter can actually help reduce pain and decrease the need for strong pain medicines after surgery.
As a family physician I found many times that humor not only allowed me to connect with patients and their families, but also worked to bring difficult situations into perspective. For patients facing serious but not life threating illness I always found pleasure in seeing the initial shock and then large grin to the question “doctor, am I going to die?” To which I would quickly retort, “YES OF COURSE! that is unless your last name is Dracula.” Somehow realizing that we share a common humanity and mortality gave my patient comfort and an understanding that we must live each day at a time and focus on doing our best to improve our health and wellbeing. I could almost see the stress fading away as we shifted the focus from the inevitable to finding a solution for their health problem.
I challenge you to find a reason to laugh today and every day, whether it’s having a good laugh with friends and family or watching your favorite comedy on Netflix; live each day jubilantly. Doctor’s orders.