“Sticks and stones …”

Words Affect Pain

pain warning labels “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I don’t know if anyone actually believed it, but the saying is vividly implanted in my memory. We know that words/language can hurt. I am especially aware of the use of language in advertising. Because we are in the wellness business, I am particularly sensitive to the language used in ads for medications – prescription meds. Most of us don’t pay much attention to ads, and of course, that’s when they are most effective because we hear “Use this med for this condition…” and pay little attention to what’s said after that. Instead, we see beautiful pictures of people having a wonderful time. Those beautiful pictures are designed to distract the viewer from the vast majority of the commercial’s content: warnings about what else can happen if you use this product.

A benign sounding phrase has been invented to label those warnings – side effects. In my mind, side effects do not exist; there are only effects. Some effects are desired but most are not. It’s very similar to the military term collateral damage used to describe unwanted or unintended destruction of life and property as if such life and property were insignificant and unimportant. Effects are effects whether intended or not, and many of them are significant. I looked up the side effects of Lipitor – a drug used to prevent heart attacks. I was amazed.

For many years the term psychosomatic was understood to mean not real, or only imaginary, as if a psychosomatic illness or psychosomatic pain were not real. Perhaps a better way of describing such illnesses and pains would be to say, “We don’t understand the cause of these symptoms.” Psychosomatic pain is pain – unexplained pain, but pain nonetheless. Integrative medicine practices taught in programs like “painLESS” are so effective in helping people reduce or eliminate pain because the practices are not dependent upon knowing or understanding the origin or cause of the pain. Pain is pain and there are things/practices one can do to reduce the pain.

Not Exactly Holistic Health

Risk factor is another interesting term which is often understood to mean the cause of a condition. It comes from the findings that a certain percentage of people who have a certain set of symptoms also have another and perhaps related or not related symptom. I’ll say that more clearly:  hypertension (high blood pressure) is considered to be risk factor for heart attacks because a high percentage of people who had a heart attack also had high blood pressure. Some ads take advantage of this misunderstanding. Basically say, if you have this risk factor (high blood pressure, for example) and don’t buy our product, you will get this bad disease (a heart attack or stroke). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should ignore risk factors any more than we should ignore some of the effects of medicines. What I am saying is that we should understand the term and deal with it appropriately.

My point is that language and language patterns should be heard. Though most in the medical field genuinely want to help, advertisers have one job – sell a product. The result is they sometimes trivialize important things and magnify other things. Because we consumers have bought into the advertiser’s pitch, we consumers put enormous pressure on our health care providers to prescribe. We have been told a pill can solve our problems and we want that pill.


About the Author

Larry Wells

Larry Wells has Master Degrees in Divinity and Social work and is a Certified Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) Master Practitioner and Consultant. He is part of the part time faculty at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work, and the Northern Kentucky Social Work department. People have life difficulties because of histories, circumstances, and the fact of having to live with people. NLP has proved to be very effective in helping to positively change the way people experience those histories, circumstances and people, as well as finding more peace and joy in life.

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