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J Pain. 2015 Apr;16(4):326-34. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2015.01.002. Epub 2015 Jan 24.

On the importance of being vocal: saying "ow" improves pain tolerance.

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Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore, Singapore; Duke/National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, Singapore; Life Sciences Institute Neurobiology/Ageing Programme, National University of Singapore, Singapore. Electronic address:


Vocalizing is a ubiquitous pain behavior. The present study investigated whether it helps alleviate pain and sought to discern potential underlying mechanisms. Participants were asked to immerse one hand in painfully cold water. On separate trials, they said "ow," heard a recording of them saying "ow," heard a recording of another person saying "ow," pressed a button, or sat passively. Compared to sitting passively, saying "ow" increased the duration of hand immersion. Although on average, participants predicted this effect, their expectations were uncorrelated with pain tolerance. Like vocalizing, button pressing increased the duration of hand immersion, and this increase was positively correlated with the vocalizing effect. Hearing one's own or another person's "ow" was not analgesic. Together, these results provide first evidence that vocalizing helps individuals cope with pain. Moreover, they suggest that motor more than other processes contribute to this effect.


Participants immersed their hand in painfully cold water longer when saying "ow" than when doing nothing. Whereas button pressing had a similar effect, hearing one's own or another person's "ow" did not. Thus, vocalizing in pain is not only communicative. Like other behaviors, it helps cope with pain.


Swearing; cold pressor; nonverbal behavior; placebo effect; speaking

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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