Humoring the patient But seriously, folks, laughter is increasingly seen as mighty good medicine

October 27, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Laugh yourself well.

Sounds crazy, doesn't it?

But medical professionals, buoyed by research suggesting humor may contribute to good health, are now examining the lighter side of being sick. After years of making merry only in pediatrics, nurses and doctors are beginning to believe what's good for the child may be good for the adult.

Consequently, humor is turning up in some unlikely places:

* In April, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article titled "The Physiologic Effects of Humor, Mirth and Laughter."

* That same month, the University of Maryland Medical Center offered a one-day workshop on bedside humor. The instructor: a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown.

* When the new Baltimore VA Medical Center opens in January, it will have a "humor room" with live performances by amateur comedians and a videotape library of "I Love Lucy," "The Three Stooges" and Abbott and Costello.

But perhaps the greatest convergence of health and laughter takes place tomorrow when the Baltimore chapter of the International Laughter Society holds its first meeting. For the last nine years, the California-based nonprofit organization has tried to spread the word that humor is good for you -- physically and psychologically.

Robin Walter, founder of the local chapter, is a believer. As a registered nurse for the past decade, she has firsthand evidence of the difference a joke can make.

"In a hospital, all the social rules are violated. People ask you all sorts of personal questions. They watch you go to the bathroom. . . . Humor becomes a coping mechanism. It's an attitude that says, 'I can rise above this,' " says Ms. Walter, 38, who lives in Bel Air.

In her own experience, however, she found that doctors often discouraged a patient from joking about an illness. "Nine times out of 10, medicine's response is: You're denying reality. You need to deal with this condition."

Even her own attempts at humor were often frowned upon. One Halloween, she turned up for work at a local hospital dressed as an Oriole player and dispensed medications from a catcher's mitt.

"The patients thought it was wonderful. They loved it. My supervisor told me it was unprofessional," she says. "So I went underground. I kept the humor between myself and my patients."

Researchers have found that adults don't laugh nearly as much as children. Infants learn to giggle by three months, and children are estimated to laugh as often as 400 times a day; by adulthood, that number is cut in half, says Dr. William Fry, a leading researcher in the field.

But Judy Goldblum-Carlton, who has worked in humor therapy for 20 years, believes that trend may be changing. In recent years, she says adults have become more receptive to her alter ego, Dr. Lollipop, the befuddled doctor with the Groucho nose. For the past 18 months, she has walked through the University of Maryland Medical Center with her humor cart -- loaded with funny audio and videotapes. Due to demand, she now stocks tapes for all ages.

"I'm a firm believer in the curative value of hearty laughter," says Ms. Goldblum-Carlton, 44.

But what exactly happens when we laugh?

"We know through laboratory evidence that humor has an effect on most of the major physiologic systems of the body -- the central nervous system, the respiratory system, the muscular system, the cardiovascular system, the endocrine system and the immune system," says Dr. Fry, a psychiatrist with the Stanford University Medical School.

During the laugh itself, these systems are stimulated -- with the heart rate and blood pressure increasing. While watching Laurel and Hardy, Dr. Fry has records of his own heart rate doubling. This "internal jogging" may benefit the body in several ways, he says.

Laughter can decrease muscle tension, aid respiration and encourage the production of endorphins, the body's natural opiates, which may increase the pain threshold.

A good belly laugh seems to have a positive effect on the brain as well. In her research, Dr. Alice M. Isen, a psychologist at Cornell University, found that people who had just watched a short comedy were better able to solve problems, to think creatively and to negotiate than those who had exercised or watched a math film.

On rare occasions, fits of laughter may be life-threatening, though. A few high-risk patients have had strokes or heart attacks during laughing spells, says Dr. Fry.

Although American researchers began studying laughter in the 1930s, the therapeutic humor movement didn't catch on until after the 1979 publication of Norman Cousins' best-seller, "Anatomy of an Illness." In it, he discussed how laughter helped him fight a degenerative arthritic-type disease.

Several national and international organizations have formed to further the benefits of humor. In addition to offering workshops, seminars and a mail-order bookstore, the Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., sponsors an annual conference -- the last one was attended by more than 1,200 people.

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