Massage therapists are no strangers to the effects of pain, as it brings many clients to massage. New research shows that not just painful memories and associations can set our pain memory on the alert, but that verbalizations of certain words can too.

“Even verbal stimuli lead to reactions in certain areas of the brain,” says researcher Dr. Thomas Weiss from the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, in Germany.

As soon as we hear words like tormenting, grueling or plaguing, exactly those areas in the brain are being activated that process the corresponding pain, he said.

The psychologists from Jena University were able to examine this phenomenon using functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRT). In their study they investigated how healthy subjects process words associated with experiencing pain. In order to prevent reactions based on a plain negative affect, the subjects were also confronted with negatively connotated words like terrifying, horrible or disgusting, in addition to the proper pain words.

“In a first task, subjects were supposed to imagine situations which correspond to the words,” said Maria Richter, a doctoral candidate on Weiss’s team. “In a second task, subjects were also reading the words but they were distracted by a brain-teaser. In both cases we could observe a clear activation of the pain matrix in the brain by pain-associated words.”