Crossing your fingers may not help you to win a lottery; it would undoubtedly reduce pain. Similarly, crossing your arms eases pain by confusing the brain. 

‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional,’ writes renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. You can indeed make suffering from pain—physical pain, not heartache of spurned lovers—optional by crossing your fingers or arms.

These ‘tricks’ are like optical illusions that can trick the brain. In the same way, pain is a perception and this perception can be tricked not to reflect the sensory input accurately. Our body’s successful interaction with its surroundings hinges on its ability to match its internal reference with the spatial frame of reference. When the physical arrangement of body parts changes, the brain must constantly update their current position. Placing your hands or fingers in unfamiliar positions relative to the body confuses the brain and disrupts the processing of pain message by mismatching between our body’s frame of reference with our external frame of reference. Simply put, our body position can influence how pain signals are sent to the brain.

A study by researchers at University College London has shown that pain vanishes when we cross the middle finger over wither the index or ring finger such as that it is no longer in the middle. You don’t have to prick your finger with a pin to prove whether the researchers are right. The researchers didn’t hurt their study participants either. They used a trick known as the thermal grill illusion to create phantom pain sensation. They applied warm sensation to the index and ring fingers and a cold sensation to the middle finger by strapping thermal pads to the fingers. This grill-like pattern of hot-cold-hot creates a burning sensation in the middle finger. The brain seems to use the spatial arrangement of all three stimuli to produce the burning sensation in just one finger. ‘This can certainly feel painful, but doesn’t involve any tissue damage,’ says Angela Marotta, the lead researcher.

In another study, also at University College London, the researchers gave volunteers a series of painful ‘jabs’ to the back of one of their hands using a laser for four milliseconds. Half of the participants received jabs when they laid down on a desk. The other half, with the arms crossed. The participants rated the pain from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most pain you could imagine. The results show that the perception of pain was weaker when the arms were crossed.

‘In everyday life you mostly use your left hand to touch things on the left side of the world, and your right hand for the right side of the world — for example when picking up glass of water on your right side generally you generally use your right hand,’ says Giandomenico Iannetti, a co-researcher. ‘Crossing your hands causes a mismatch and it makes the processing of pain more difficult.’

The trick may even work on some people with chronic pain.

In Wolf Hall, the BBC TV series based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, when King Henry VIII explodes and berates Thomas Cromwell in front of the court, ‘You think you are the king, and I’m the blacksmith’s boy!’, Cromwell raises his hands and crosses his wrists, and says, ‘God preserve Your Majesty and now will you excuse me.’ A flashback shows a young Cromwell burning himself in his abusive father’s blacksmith workshop. ‘Cross your wrists,’ his father shouts, ‘it confuses the pain.’

Crossing the arms did confuse the pain suffered by the young boy (and the participants in the University College London study); it might also help you if you are ever in pain.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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