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Humor Therapy

Other common name(s): laugh therapy

Scientific name(s): none

Description

Humor therapy is the use of humor for the relief of physical or emotional pain and stress. It is used as a complementary method to promote health and cope with illness.

Overview

Although available scientific evidence does not support claims that laughter can cure cancer or any other disease, it can reduce stress and enhance a person’s quality of life. Humor has physical effects because it can stimulate the circulatory system, immune system, and other systems in the body.

How is it promoted for use?

Humor therapy is generally used to improve quality of life, provide pain relief, encourage relaxation, and reduce stress. Researchers have described different types of humor. Passive humor results from seeing prepared material, such as watching a funny movie or stand-up comedy or reading an amusing book. Spontaneous or unplanned humor involves finding humor in everyday situations. Being able to find humor in life can be helpful when dealing with cancer.

What does it involve?

The physical effects of laughter on the body include increased breathing, increased oxygen use, short-term changes in hormones and certain neurotransmitters, and increased heart rate. Many hospitals and treatment centers have set up special rooms with humorous materials for the purpose of making people laugh, such as movies, audio recordings, books, games, and puzzles. Many hospitals use volunteers who visit patients for the purpose of making them laugh. Some cancer treatment centers offer humor therapy in addition to standard treatments.

What is the history behind it?

Humor has been used in medicine throughout recorded history. One of the earliest mentions of the health benefits of humor is in the book of Proverbs in the Bible. As early as the thirteenth century, some surgeons used humor to distract patients from the pain of surgery. Humor was also widely used and studied by the medical community in the early twentieth century. In more modern times, the most famous story of humor therapy involved Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review. According to the story, Mr. Cousins cured himself of an unknown illness with a self-invented regimen of laughter and vitamins.

What is the evidence?

Available scientific evidence does not support humor as an effective treatment for cancer or any other disease; however, laughter has many benefits, including positive physical changes and an overall sense of well-being. One study found the use of humor led to an increase in pain tolerance. It is thought laughter causes the release of special neurotransmitter substances in the brain called endorphins that help control pain. Another study found that neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones decreased during episodes of laughter. These findings provide support for the claim that humor can relieve stress. More studies are needed to clarify the impact of laughter on health.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

Humor therapy is considered safe when used with conventional medical therapy. It can be harmful if used to avoid difficult or delicate issues that are important to you or your family. Laughter can also cause temporary pain after some types of surgery. This improves as the body heals and causes no lasting harm.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Berk LS, Tan SA, Fry WF, Napier BJ, Lee JW, Hubbard RW, Lewis JE, Eby WC. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. Am J Med Sci. 1989;298:390-396.

Joshua AM, Cotroneo A, Clarke S. Humor and oncology. J Clin Oncol. 2005;23:645-648.

Penson RT, Partridge RA, Rudd P, Seiden MV, Nelson JE, Chabner BA, Lynch TJ Jr. Laughter: the best medicine? Oncologist. 2005;10:651-660.

Seaward BL. Humor’s healing potential. Health Prog. 1992;73:66-70.

Weisenberg M, Tepper I, Schwarzwald J. Humor as a cognitive technique for increasing pain tolerance. Pain. 1995;63:207-212.

Ziegler J. Immune system may benefit from the ability to laugh. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1995;87:342-343.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008