Texting may help relieve physical pain

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Text messaging has been maligned for causing chronic aches and pains—thanks, in part, to the fact that picking the perfect emoji and typing "haha" for the hundredth time causes us to take on the posture of Quasimodo.

However, while the act of texting may lead to discomfort for those glued to their smartphones, receiving a text message can significantly reduce pain for those who are injured, ill, or undergoing surgery.

Yes, a new study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain, found that when patients suffering from chronic pain received supportive text messages every day, their pain was significantly reduced compared to patients who did not. (Never underestimate the power of words.)


"Just receiving two messages a day that included simple, encouraging phrases was enough to decrease perceived pain levels in chronic pain patients," Jamie Guillory, a scientist at the research institute RTI International and lead author on the study, told Fusion in an email.

The experiment

In order to study the effects of texting on pain, Guillory and her colleagues recruited 67 participants from pain clinics in the state of New York who were being treated for chronic pain disorders and studied them for four weeks.

The patients were split into two groups: One group received their regularly scheduled pain treatment along with two supportive messages a day at random times. Supportive messages included things like "You are a strong and courageous person. You have made it through many struggles and will not give up" and "Do not feel guilt about the changes in your life caused by your pain. Your loved ones and doctors support you."

The other group received their regular pain treatment, and sadly, no messages (womp womp). Side note: None of the participants received supportive text messages during the first week of the experiment, which acted as the control week.


At the same time, patients were asked to download and use an app in which they recorded their pain levels twice a day. During these times they were asked to indicate the amount of pain they felt as well as how the pain was interfering with their general activities, relations, and sleep. They were also asked to visually represent their pain by picking a photo from a series of images.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

The results

As predicted, patients reported a reduction in pain once they started receiving supportive messages every day compared to the control week and compared to patients who did not receive any messages at all.


"I think our results speak positively to using simple methods of social support for pain management," Guillory told Fusion.

There is one big catch, however. The study focused on patients 30 to 80 years old, and pain was only mitigated by supportive text messages when patients were married or partnered. Patients who were single, divorced, or separated did not receive the same positive benefits.


Why? Guillory suggested that having a real-life support system already in place was necessary for digital support to work—the text messages basically served to reinforce the support a patient already had.

For example, she told Fusion, "Married participants had higher perceived levels of social support at the beginning of the experiment, which is consistent with previous studies that show married people to have easier access to social support and larger support networks."


That doesn't mean there isn't hope for the unhitched. Having a large support network can include friends and family, not just significant others, as long as one makes an effort to keep those networks alive and well. "Our findings suggest that similar messages sent by friends or loved ones could also have pain attenuating effects," Guillory said.

The takeaway

The most important thing to remember is that physical pain can literally be reduced by emotional support. Indeed, in a previous study, Guillory found that even patients undergoing surgery saw a reduction in pain and required less supplemental treatment when actively texting.


So if you feel the urge to comfort someone over text, go ahead and press send. Reaching out with a simple "feel better" or "hang in there" could make a big difference.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter