After, oh, age 8 or so, you no longer get away with wailing when you get stung by a bee or stub your toe. But unfortunately—whether it’s a much-needed bikini wax or your annual mammogram—pain is a part of our everyday lives. It turns out, though, that you don’t have to rely only on your OTC aspirin to get relief. Research reveals some quirky but effective natural ways to reduce aches without popping a pill.
1. Shout a four-letter word
Next time you take a spill, don’t hold your tongue. Swearing can increase your tolerance for discomfort, found British researchers. People could keep their hands submerged 35% longer in a tub of ice-cold water when they repeated an epithet in lieu of a more acceptable word. Swearing may trigger a series of physical and hormonal reactions that ease the sting of an injury.
2. Flip through photos
Scanning your iPhone for loving faces before an uncomfortable test like a mammogram may make it more bearable. Women who viewed pictures of their partners during a lab test reported less pain than those who looked at inanimate objects or strangers. A loving face may spur the release of chemicals that shut down pain-processing areas of the brain.
3. Drum up a steamy fantasy
Let your mind wander to a sexy encounter to offset acute aches and pains. In one Johns Hopkins study, participants could withstand more pain and experienced less anxiety during a lab experiment when their minds meandered to something sexual, compared with other people who thought about more vanilla topics. Such fantasy distracts you from the pain, and it also reduces anxiety and relaxes you, says study coauthor Hamid Hekmat, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. (Love life not too inspiring? Check out these 20 tips to spice things up.)
4. Take deep, slow breaths
Are you a wimp about flu shots? Before your next skin prick, start using your yoga breaths. Women whose breathing rates slowed by half reported significantly less discomfort during a pain-inducing experiment. Measured breathing helps deactivate your body’s fight-or-flight response to pain. It can also be a good distraction—something women who’ve given birth know well!
5. Meditate a little every day
Wind down before bed with a few minutes of calm. People who meditate regularly have thicker areas of the cortex, a part of the brain that affects pain sensitivity, than those who don’t, finds Canadian research. A few days of practice may be enough to boost pain tolerance. Click here to find out the meditation style that’s best for your personality.
6. Sniff a green apple
Feel a headache coming on? Munch on an apple or light a similarly scented candle. In one study from the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, when people in the midst of a migraine attack sniffed test tubes containing a green apple smell, the pain improved more than when they sniffed tubes that had no scent.
Researchers say it could be a matter of distraction, or it could be that the smell of green apple actually reduces muscle contractions in the head and neck, reducing headache pain. Earlier studies found that the smell of green apples helps reduce anxiety.
7. Put on your game face
A procedure like a root canal will hurt less if you don't expect it to be a big deal. Two groups of volunteers received the same level of discomfort in a lab experiment at Wake Forest University (it involved applying 122 degree F heat to their legs). But the group that was told the ouch would be "mild to moderate" reported feeling 28 percent less pain than the group that was told it would be "moderate to severe." The benefit was all in their minds: MRI scans revealed that pain-processing areas in the brain registered less activity when expectations were low.
To help lower your ache expectations before a procedure, don't ask wimpy pals about their painful experiences. Simply tell yourself that you will feel some pain—but it won't be awful. And if the hurt catches you by surprise, say aloud, This will only hurt for a little while, advises lead researcher Robert C. Coghill. Then purposefully shift your attention to something else.
8. Hang out with your BFF
Persistent pain, like an achy back, can be a lot more manageable with a little help from your friends. A Spanish study found that that the more solace patients received from friends and loved ones, the more they actively looked for new ways to cope with their symptoms, bringing extra pain relief.
9. Turn up the volume
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, chances are, your doc advised you to keep moving to improve your mobility. But how can you do that when moving is so painful? The key may be music. In a small study at Glasgow University in Scotland, researchers found that women with rheumatoid arthritis could walk 30 percent farther when they listened to music of their choice than when they walked in silence. "The music didn't make their pain disappear," says lead researcher Dr. Paul MacIntyre. "It took their mind off it, so they could walk farther without needing to stop."
10. Manage your mind
Did you know retraining your mind can ease the mental stress of chronic arthritis and even relieve some of the pain? Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers who practiced Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for six months were 35 percent less distressed than those who didn't use this method—even though their physical disease continued to progress at the same rate, finds a recent study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
MBSR has been shown in previous studies to reduce pain by constantly refocusing the mind on the present moment to increase clarity and calmness. Click here to learn 3 Easy Ways To De-Stress With Mindfulness in your everyday life.
11. Visit Van Gogh
Gazing at works by your favorite painter may help ease pain, say researchers at Italy's University of Bari. They delivered stinging sensations from lasers to the skin of 12 healthy subjects who were looking at paintings they had previously rated as beautiful, neutral, or ugly. Reported pain was about one-third less intense among subjects who gazed at art they found pleasing; conversely, the pain was more intense when they saw pieces they didn't like.
12. Have faith
Literally: Having daily spiritual rituals or experiences may help some people with chronic pain feel better, says a Duke University study. Every day for a month, 35 people with rheumatoid arthritis kept notes on their coping strategies, pain levels, mood, and social support. "People who really felt that religious and spiritual coping strategies worked for them personally demonstrated that they really had less pain, better moods, and more social support," said Francis J. Keefe, associate director for research at the Duke University Medical Center's Pain and Palliative Care Center in Durham, NC. For more natural ways to fight your ailments, check out these 6 Foods That Fight Pain.