Laughter as a medicine

April 1, 2006
How many times have we been behind our masks, and there was something a patient either said or did that tickled our funny bone?

How many times have we been behind our masks, and there was something a patient either said or did that tickled our funny bone?

More than that, how many times have we wanted to share the funny story with our peers because we are the only ones that could find the humor in the experience?

During 30 years of clinical practice, I have had a cast of characters that I have learned to love and look forward to seeing every three to six months. This would include even the dentists that I have worked with. Some patients are funny on purpose, such as the older man who always brings in a joke to tell. Others are funny only to me, like the guy who has to hold on to his toupee when I lay him back in the chair.

As for your individual sense of humor, the question is not what is humorous, but what is humorous to you. The healing nature of humor is experienced through your wit, mirth, and laughter.

Wit - One of the wittiest men that I know is Bill Landers, president of OraTec. Some of you are familiar with Bill and his products, TheraSol and the Viajet line being only a few. He has what some would call a dry sense of humor.

When we experience wit, we intellectually appreciate, understand, and “get” the humor. Wit helps us break up our rigid ways of thinking associated with emotional distress, such as depression, anxiety, and anger. It also helps us to see the world with perspective, thus reducing the impact of the stressors around us.

Mirth - Mirth is experiencing uplifting emotions such as joy, pleasure, or inner warmth associated with humor. Distressing emotions and mirth cannot occupy the same psychological space. As we experience mirth, distress dissolves and a pleasant, sunny spirit takes over. We know this intuitively as illustrated by someone using humor “instinctively” to reduce another’s anger.

This reminds me of watching children play or something that is categorized as “only out of the mouths of babes.” For example, I would witness my daughter, Amanda, saying her prayers as a toddler. When she mentioned God’s name, she wanted to make sure He had the same last name as us. According to her, His name was “God Whitmer” (my ex-husband’s last name). Speaking of my “ex,” I had to make sure he knew she wasn’t talking to him!

Dr. Lee Berk at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California has found through research that the “mirthful laughter experience,” as he calls it, appears to reduce serum levels of cortisol, dopac, adrenaline, and growth hormone, thereby creating a reverse effect to the classical hormone response during times of stress. Both physically and psychologically, it is as if laughter acts as a “safety valve” for the discharge of nervous energy.

Laughter - Laughter can inspire a fresh perception, a new way of thinking, a change of belief, and the revelation of previously unimagined possibilities. Laughter inspires lateral thinking. Laughter is also a good antidote to too much seriousness. Seriousness arises during times of stress and anxiety, and it blows up problems; laughter blows them away! The psychologist and mystic, Alan Watts, once wrote, “The whole art of life is in knowing how to transform anxiety into laughter.”

Laughter is the physiological reaction to humor. The research on laughter, while limited, indicates physiological benefits, including an increase in certain antibodies, a reduction of specific stress hormones, and an increased tolerance to pain. Do you see where I am going with this? Give your patients comedy tapes to listen to on the way to their dental appointment!

By learning to tickle our respective funny bones, we stimulate our own, and possibly others’ wit, mirth, and laughter. As we strive to live a lifestyle incorporating humor, we lessen the emotional and physical stresses, increasing our health and well-being. Indeed, humor may be the best medicine to keep us emotionally, mentally, and physically fit.

Many of you have your own stories, and a few of you have shared them with me. This one is one of my favorites from Kathy Urena, RDH, in Arizona.

It was a dark and stormy night ... no, really, it was ... in January, and I was coming off a 12-hour day. A long drive home in wet, slushy sleet was what I had to look forward to. I finished my last patient, broke down my operatory, cleaned and disinfected, reset for the next day, changed my scrubs, said my good nights, and made a beeline for my car. As I hurried to turn my key in the lock, I found it wouldn’t turn. The lock was frozen. (Curses came from her lips.) I went back inside and asked if anyone had any lock de-icer. Luckily, the office manager did. I got it out of her car and gave my locked door a liberal dose ... no response. (Cursing again!) I tried the key again and gave up, afraid I would break the key off in the lock. I must admit, I even kicked the stupid door a few times. Finally, when all else failed, I went back in the office to get hot water to pour on the lock. Now, as some of you may know, that particular choice for de-icing a lock is not the recommended one, but I had miles to go before I could sleep, and I was game for anything. I found a gallon jug in the office, filled it with hot water, and proceeded out the door for my last-ditch effort.

As I stood there next to the car, wind whipping about, blowing big fat, wet, slushy, sleety snowflakes in my face, wondering exactly how to go about my task, the doctor’s last patient exited the office. He came over to me and asked sympathetically, “Is this the car you’re having trouble with?”

“Yes,” I said dejectedly, hoping for some well deserved sympathy and maybe a little help.

He replied, “That’s my car.” Can you imagine how I felt?

Another unbelievable but true story from an RDH in California:

Once I dropped the saliva ejector on the floor. I asked the assistant to “fix” the situation for me. I didn’t want to say: “Hey, I dropped this; can you get me another one?” She was gone for a long time. She finally came back, put a saliva ejector on and then left again.

I asked her later what took so long. She said she knew the plastic would melt in the autoclave so she just ran it through the ultrasonic and rinsed it off for me.

Some of us may be able to relate to this one. Kimberly Goodson, RDH, writes:

I had a male patient who insisted on taking his shirt off while I cleaned his teeth so it wouldn’t wrinkle. “Big meeting” that day.

I politely said, “No shirt, no service.” I stepped out of the operatory and came back. Guess what happened? The shirt was off.

My doctor finally talked him into a smock, which only zipped up half way. With the protective sunglasses and a half zipped smock he looked at me and said: “I feel like a Hollywood gynecologist.”

Laughter has been called social glue because it bonds us to the people we laugh with. Another unique, but true story from Diann Bomkamp, RDH, in Missouri:

It happened more than 30 years ago. I had to retrieve an item in my lab and I was about to walk back into my operatory and I found my patient urinating in my old cuspidor! I had to go back into the lab for awhile to get over the shock!

Perhaps the most exciting medical research on laughter is in the field of “psycho-neuro-immunology,” which looks at the effect of the mind on the brain and on the immune system. This research shows that - while suppressed anger or feelings of intense hatred or frustration, for example, disturb the natural, healthy functioning of the immune system - laughter, joy, and happiness have been found to help boost the immune system.

The repeated research experiments of Dr. Berk show that laughter, happiness, and joy “inspire” the immune system to create white T cells, commonly called “happy cells,” which help to prevent infection.

Cher Frazier, RDH, wrote this one:

I was in an older office with one of those extremely large and heavy X-ray heads. I have this new patient, and the guy is drop-dead gorgeous - and he is flirting with me! I’m not used to guys flirting with me, so he has me totally flustered. I was taking X-rays and turned around and walked right into that big ol’ X-ray head and knocked myself right to the floor.

That was the first time ever in my life I actually saw stars! I wanted to die ... I ended up with a huge goose egg on my forehead.

Ouch, Cher! Hope the goose egg is gone! Another RDH from Wisconsin writes:

I had just started a job at 16 as a dental assistant - just came to work from school ... long hair, painstakingly curled ... no gloves were worn. I was so intrigued by teeth in general; my new job just fascinated me, and I was excited to be learning so many new things. The dentist had the old belt-driven handpiece, when all of a sudden, I was literally attached to this guy’s face. My hair was caught in the handpiece, and, at those RPMs, it didn’t take long for me to end up in a compromising position with this male patient. I think he had his eyes shut, so he never saw me coming. Hair was all over his face. It all happened so fast, none of us had much time to do anything about it. It was so embarrassing!

I could not pass this one to share with you from Judy Lees, RDH:

As a young dental hygienist, I was reviewing Mr. Jones’ health history. He had stated that he had just had a knee replacement eight weeks previously. I informed him of the prophylactic antibiotic protocol and inquired if he had any known allergies to penicillin or amoxicillin. The patient replied, “No,” and I told him that I would return shortly. When I walked back into the operatory, Mr. Jones was standing in the corner with his pants and boxers around his ankles exposing his “behind”! I took a deep breath and told Mr. Jones he could get dressed and take this prescription to the pharmacy of his choice, that I was not licensed to give injections outside of the mouth!

Sherri Bush, RDH, from Cleveland, Tenn., shares:

When I first started working at my office over eight years ago, I, of course did not know the patients all that well yet. My boss asked me if I would go out and get his next patient who I’ll call John Jones. So I went out in the waiting room and called out both the first and last name. A gentleman gets out of his chair and follows me into the op. Well, the doctor glances into the op and then over at me and says, ”That’s not John Jones.” I said to the doctor, “Well, he was the guy who got up when I called his name. I guess he doesn’t know who he is!”

And finally, ending with my favorite from an RDH who was diligently working on a patient, not noticing that her watch chain was tangling up and ...

... My watch chain caught his hair and up came his toupee! Right! His toupee hadn’t been that noticeable because I was behind and didn’t pay any attention. I disconnected the watch, patted his toupee on his head, and continued working. I remember laughing nervously and not getting any response from him. In fact, he didn’t speak to me at all for the rest of the appointment. I never saw him again. I never wore that watch again either.

Thank you to all that have contributed to my spirit and building my immune system with this enjoyable column. We love our patients as if they were family; the humor of it all is what keeps me going on a daily basis.

Aromatherapy Tip

Here’s my aromatherapy tip for the month.

General immunity stimulants are sage, frankincense, eucalyptus, bay laurel. Cinnamon and oregano are also good for stimulating the immune system, but they must be used with caution (they are extremely potent).

Use no oils directly on the skin or in the mouth.

The healthy benefits of laughter

When we laugh we ...

• Alleviate depression
• Promote relaxation
• Reduce stress
• Increase the oxygen level in our blood, giving us more energy
• Increase the endorphin activity in our body, resulting in a sense of well-being
• Are able to keep things in perspective
• Banish boredom
• Are more socially attractive; people enjoy being with those who laugh easily and more often
• Immeasurably increase our enjoyment of life