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drawing of a turkey in makeup and holding a sigh with the R X symbol HUMOR THERAPY:

[From the American Cancer Society]

Comical or amusing entertainment. A quality that appeals to the sense of the ridiculous. That's what the dictionary calls humor. But in considering humor as a useful complementary therapy, scientists look at the possible release of endorphins that occurs when we laugh. They see humor as a distraction from stress and pain.

Humor as therapy is its deliberate use to provide symptom relief. This happens because humor reduces the natural stresses of illness and distracts the patient from pain. It is useful for treating people with physical and emotional problems.

The value of humor has been confirmed to the point that many hospitals and ambulatory care centers now have incorporated special rooms where materials - and sometimes people - are there to help make people laugh. Materials include movies, audio and videotapes, books, games, and puzzles for patients of every age. Movies and TV shows by popular comedians from Laurel and Hardy to Bob Hope and Bob Newhart, humorous songs, the joke of the day on the Internet, the one paragraph jokes and funny stories from the Readers' Digest, all have value in helping patients who would otherwise have little to laugh about.

A hospital in North Carolina created a "laughmobile" that visits bedridden patients. Many hospitals throughout the nation now use volunteer groups who visit patients with carts full of humor devices, including slapstick items such as water pistols and rubber chickens. They visit patients who are fighting cancer and other serious illnesses, providing an oasis of laughter during an otherwise difficult time.

With all of the various objects and techniques, the goal is similar and simple: make patients laugh and help them put aside their fears, their concerns about health, and their discomforts.


Laughter has been important in treating the sick and injured for many years. In the 13th century, surgeons used humor and laughter to distract patients from the pain of surgery. They were using humor as an anesthetic. Evidence from early 20th century medical literature indicates that laughter and humor were serious subjects, considered to have vital benefits in medicine.

The physical effects of laughter on the body include increased breathing and heart rates as well as increased oxygen use. Laugh more, use more oxygen, stimulate the circulatory system. Laughter also exercises the same muscles and organs we use for breathing, which is another positive benefit. As mentioned, it is also believed that laughter releases endorphins, or special neurotransmitter substances in the brain, which help control pain. These effects are physiologic; there are observable changes in the body.

As might be expected, there are also psychological benefits to humor therapy. What better way to break the ice and let patients discuss feelings about their illness? Just as they work well in social settings generally, humor and laughter promote relaxation and the more pleasurable aspects of life for patients as well.


In the 1960s, Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review, an influential intellectual magazine, returned from a visit to Moscow. He became suddenly ill and was hospitalized in the US. With high fever, severe pain and increasing difficulty in moving about, his doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong.

Cousins decided to leave the hospital and try a unique approach to medical treatment. He checked into a hotel and began watching some of his favorite Marx Brothers movies and Candid Camera TV episodes. In short, he deliberately tried to use laughter as medicine. The pain eventually disappeared. Cousins wrote a book about the experience, and people around the world shared his story of using laughter to his benefit.

Despite this interesting story and the relief that Cousins received from humor, there is no scientific evidence that the laughter was responsible for Cousins' cure. Scientists today believe that, even though humor cannot cure disease, it has profound physical and psychological benefits. As with so many mind-body situations, humor provides relief from worry. In so doing, it relaxes and reduces stress. Endorphins are released. The entire process is helpful, and it can enhance the quality of life.

Like other complementary therapies, humor therapy may be used in relieving certain symptoms of cancer and side effects of cancer treatment. Humor therapy should not be expected to slow or reverse growth or spread of cancer.

[From the American Cancer Society]


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