In the book "Anatomy of an Illness," journalist and author Norman Cousins chronicled how 10-minute intervals of intense laughter helped him get two hours of undisturbed sleep -- despite a painful spinal condition that had previously kept him from dozing off. However, laughter as an alternative pain treatment isn't a new idea. In fact, people in Asia and South America have extolled its benefits for centuries. As early as the 13th century, doctors used laughter as a distraction to relieve pain during surgery. The Biblical book of Proverbs, which dates back more than 2,000 years, mentions the therapeutic power of laughter several times.
Pediatric hospitals also use therapeutic forms of entertainment like clown therapy to help children tolerate the pain, nausea and anxiety associated with chemotherapy and radiation treatment [source: RXLaughter]. The 1998 movie "Patch Adams" was based on the real-life story of a doctor who used humor to treat patients while he was still in medical school. Patch Adams and his colleagues at the Gesundheit Institute in Virginia use a combination of clowning, singing and dancing to treat patients through entertainment in conjunction with traditional medicine [source: Gesundheit Institute]. A similar group based in Australia uses clown therapy to incite laughter in patients dealing with injuries, diseases and terminal illnesses [source: Humour Foundation].
Laughter yoga is a relatively new, yet effective, healing tool. In March 1995, Dr. Batan Kataria led five students through the first laughter yoga class in Mumbai, India. Today, people in more than 50 countries practice laughter yoga to temporarily relieve pain from chronic conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. Laughter yoga incorporates the meditation, stretching and relaxation techniques found in yoga and combines them with breathing exercises and playful laughter [source: Rajewski].
More people are turning to laughter to ease their troubled minds as well as their bodies. Some serving in the military are being trained to use genuine and forced laughter as stress relievers to help prevent and treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can result from harrowing experiences like combat duty [sources: Burbank, Clark].
Although there's no concrete evidence that laughter alone can cure an illness, it does promote physical and mental health. Learn more about how laughter's therapeutic properties with the links below.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
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