Does Rubbing a Boo-Boo Really Make It Better? (and Other Questions about Pain in the Brain)

Q: Does rubbing a boo-boo really make it better?

A: Yes! Pain signals are sent to the brain by special receptors, called nociceptors, which are sensitive enough to distinguish between a bruise and a scratch. If you rub or caress a wound, receptors for other types of sensations will start sending out their own signals -drowning out the pain signals of the nociceptors, like one voice getting lost in the crowd. The result? The pain lessens, and maybe even goes away. So let Mommy kiss that boo-boo!

Q: Can swearing help?

Yes again. There's good scientific evidence to suggest that cursing like a sailor can numb your pain. In a recent study, participants were asked to hold their hand in icy water for as long as they could. They could either say the same neutral word over and over while their hand was in the water, or they could repeat a swear word of their choice. The people who cursed reportedly felt less pain, and they were able to keep their hand in the water longer. Scientists aren't exactly sure what causes the phenomenon, but they'd swear by it.

Q: Why do you stub the same toe twice?

A: There's more at work here than just bad luck. To understand why you stub the same toe twice, we need to look at the thalamus, the part of the brain that interprets pain signals. If the signals last for a while, the thalamus eventually starts to ignore them. This is called habituation. Unfortunately, when the thalamus starts to ignore pain, it also ends up ignoring other things, like where exactly a body part is in space. Not knowing exactly where your stubbed toe is can make you clumsy, and you can wind up hurting yourself again.


The above article by Peter Hildebrand is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the November-December 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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@ Courageous Grace
A study I read a while ago found that rubbing the boo-boo only worked when the individual rubbed it, not when others did.
Maybe kissing the boo-boos of children is more about reassurance and comfort? I do recall it helping when I was a youngling.
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