Why Crossing Your Arms Helps Kill Pain

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To the list of unusual antidotes for pain — including cursing, meditation and giving a massage (also, getting one) — now add crossing your arms.

A new study published in the journal Pain found that when people crossed their arms, it reduced their perception of pain.  The pain source was a “pinprick” sensation caused by the heat from a laser aimed at one of their hands. Participants also felt non-painful electrical stimulation less intensely in this position.

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The research involved two experiments — one that included eight participants and another that included 12. The first experiment measured participants’ responses to the stimulation itself while their hands were either at their sides or crossed over each other. The second experiment looked at the brain regions activated.

Researchers led by Giandomenico Iannetti of University College London found that when people’s hands were crossed to other side of their bodies, it confused the brain by interrupting the processing of information incoming from multiple regions. Ianetti says the confusion results from a misalignment between the brain’s external mapping of where it normally assumes the hands will be (on the appropriate side of the body) and its internal map of the physical source of the new pain information.

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Although the information about the pain’s location was accurately processed, the brain had trouble integration this information correctly with information about the nature of the sensation. “When you cross your arms these maps are not activated together anymore, leading to less effective brain processing of sensory stimuli, including pain, being perceived as weaker,” he said in a statement.

This idea is supported by earlier research showing that only children older than five make confused judgments about the order of sensations felt on their hands when they are crossed. Before that age, their brains haven’t developed the maps that make the crossed position seem unusual and, therefore, confusing.

Practically, it’s unlikely that this will result in significant pain relief for pain in areas other than the hands, and the ongoing duration of the relief is not known. However, the study adds to understanding of how the brain processes pain, which could help the development of new types of anesthetics.

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And, perhaps it sheds light on the classic posture of adolescent defiance: standing with one’s arms crossed, cursing.  Both cursing and arm crossing could reduce emotional torment. After all, the “hurt” or “unpleasant” aspects of pain are processed by the same brain regions, whether the insult is psychological or comes from a physical injury or illness.

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