Cheaper than a massage, and fewer side effects than popping pills: A new study reports that crossing your arms can significantly relieve pain.
Twenty brave participants (12 of them women) allowed scientists to inflict pain via pulses of radiant heat from an infrared laser. The laser was aimed at the sensitive radial nerve of the forearm. During some bursts of pain, participants had their arms crossed in front of them. In those trials, participants reported significantly reduced sensations of pain. Researchers also were monitoring brain activity with an EEG. During arms-crossed trials, the participants' brains showed smaller spikes of activity suggesting pain processing.
The research team, led by neuroscientist Giandomenico Iannetti from University College London, UK, speculates that crossing the arms confuses the brain. The researchers write, "Crossing the hands over the body midline impairs [the brain's] ability to localize tactile stimuli." More specifically, information about the right side of the body appears to be coming in through the nervous system from the left side of the body, and vice/versa. The fact that participants could see their own hands added to the brain's confusion - because it looked like the right hand was the left hand, and vice/versa.
Other forms of "confusing" the brain have long been used to reduce pain, such as rubbing the area around the pain. This increases the sensory stimulation flooding the brain from that region, reducing the brain's capacity to listen to the pain signals. (Kind of like putting on music to drown out the sound of your neighbors arguing.) But I like the arms-crossed strategy because it includes the possibility of just giving yourself a hug. A self-hug should reduce pain in other ways, too, providing contact comfort and a feeling of safety and self-compassion that reduces the nervous system's reactivity to pain and threat.
So the next time your bang your thumb, or your carpal tunnel syndrome flares up, go ahead and let a few swear words fly (after all, research shows that helps reduce pain, too) - but then give yourself a hug and take a few deep breaths.
Gallace A, Torta DM, Moseley GL, & Iannetti GD (2011). The analgesic effect of crossing the arms. Pain 152(6):1418-23.
Kelly McGonigal is the author of Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Relieve Your Pain.