This One Simple Trick Can Help Ease Your Pain in Seconds, Study Says

The next time you stub your toe, try doing this to help yourself feel better.

Perhaps you're prone to bumping your head on that low cellar door. Or maybe you're just bad at navigating that Lego block minefield the kids left behind. The unfortunate truth is that pain is a fact of life, and even those who are super careful can find themselves with small bumps and bruises that really hurt. But thanks to one simple trick, you don't have to live in anguish: A new study has found that simply counting backward can help your mind ease the feeling of pain.

To conduct their research, a team at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in Germany exposed 20 test subjects to a painful cold stimulus and were told to use one of three methods to wish the pain away: counting down from 1,000; thinking of something beautiful or pleasant; and automitigation, which means simply telling themselves that the pain they were experiencing was not that bad.

By performing an MRI of subjects that analyzed neural activity during the experiment and asking them to rank their pain on a scale from 0 to 100, the researchers found that using numbers as a mental distraction proved to be the most effective of the three tactics.

Man gripping his leg in pain after a run or jog

"This task obviously requires such a high level of concentration that it distracts the subject's attention significantly from the sensation of pain. In fact, some of our subjects managed to reduce the perceived intensity of pain by 50 percent," study author Enrico Schulz, MD, a neuroscientist at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, said in a statement. "One participant later reported that she had successfully adopted the strategy during the most painful phase of childbirth."

The results of the MRI scans, which divided the brain into 360 different regions, also shed light on why focusing on dwindling digits was so effective. Compared to picturing something peaceful or wishing the pain away, the "constrained task" of counting required more communication between areas of the brain. "To cope with pain, the brain makes use of a recipe that also works well in other contexts," study co-author Anne Stankewitz of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität said. "Success depends on effective teamwork."

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This isn't the first time a study has tested the effectiveness of doing a mental countdown to try to relieve discomfort. A Japanese study from 2014 looked to find ways to mitigate the pain caused by injecting the anesthetic propofol, asking one set of patients to count backward from 100 during their procedure. However, this study found that both counting and non-counting groups experienced pain, with age being the biggest defining factor when their discomfort was ranked.

Still, the next time you pinch your fingers in the fridge door, try counting down from 100—it's definitely better than screaming obscenities. And for more on aches you should pay attention to, check out 25 Common Pains You Should Never Ignore.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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