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The power of humor in healing by Kristin Hurst


The power of humor in healing

Although a bedside visit by a clown can turn a patients frown upside down, humor in the hospital is no laughing matter. Its clear that laughter can help patients feel happier, and it also has some surprising health benefits.

June 18, 2003
By Kristin Hurst

Research shows that peoples daily mood or frame of mind has a significant impact on their health, according to Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D., a pioneer in humor research who is president of The Laughter Remedy ( and author of Health, Healing, and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training.

McGhee points out that while stress weakens the immune system, humor and laughter can strengthen it. According to McGhee, laughter has been shown to lower the level of stress hormones in the blood, temporarily lower blood pressure and reduce pain. Laughter also provides an excellent source of cardiac exercise and lowers the amount of residual air in the lungs, replacing it with oxygen-rich air, he says.

McGhee is currently cataloging the growing number of hospitals that recognize the healing power of humor with programs designed to cheer patients during their hospital stay. Some facilities offer regular clown visits or cartloads of toys to amuse patients, but one of the most comprehensive humor programs is the MIRTH unit at INTEGRIS Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Center, Oklahoma City.

The rehabilitation center provides inpatient, outpatient and community-based rehabilitative care for children and adults with acquired brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputee or orthopedic conditions. Many of the patients in the 27-bed MIRTH unit, established in January 2003, are geriatric patients spending time in therapy for strokes, hip or knee replacement surgery, or arthritis.

Although the mission to rehabilitate patients is a serious one, theres never a dull day at the MIRTH unit. Every day, something different is going on, says Susan Shepard, clinical manager.

The floor is decorated with fun themes, staff members decorate their white coats with bright colors and amusing themes, and a large bulletin board is covered with drawings by children from the hospitals day care center, who visit each week. A cart by the nurses station is filled with playful get-ups for patients, from bunny ears to bubble necklaces.

Each week, a clown visits patients to spread a little cheer with balloons and a smile. At regular events, such as carnivals, patients have a good time and get involved in physical activities such as face painting or games that call for reaching, throwing or otherwise working on manual dexterity. The idea is to find activities that interest patients and get them actively involved.

For example, patients and staff recently got together to tie-dye a batch of shirts, which everyone proudly wore on the same day. The patients did some therapeutic upper body work from using rubber bands and other activities during the dyeing process, Shepard says. It was a lot of work, but it was really fun.

Each patient is in therapy for at least three hours a day, and the average length of stay is 11 days. In addition to standard occupational and physical therapy, patients can also take advantage of music, recreational, horticulture and pet therapy, when appropriate. A psychologist and speech therapist are also on staff.

Patients are given a choice to participate in MIRTH activities, or to simply watch. Staff members and visiting therapists are trained to be sensitive to each patients wishes. And because MIRTH stands for Medical Institute for Recovery Through Humor, patients complete a survey when they leave, helping the staff gauge their success at using humor to improve healing.

Although its too soon to tell if this entertaining approach to rehabilitation results in better outcomes, Shepard believes that patients on the MIRTH unit are more involved during their hospital stay and think less about their pain. It makes it all worthwhile to see these patients smile again, she says.

With their lighthearted attitude, the staff has also made the unit a better place to work. Says Shepard, Morale has really improved, and we have found a great cohesiveness from working as a team.


Nurses can receive 7.2 hours of continuing education credit by taking Paul McGhees course on humor and health on the Internet, offered by Corexcel at The cost is $55. To go directly to the course, go to

Corexcel is accredited as a provider of continuing education in nursing by the American Nurses Credentialing Centers (ANCC) commission on accreditation, the International Association of Continuing Education and Training (IACET) and the Board of Nursing of the state of Florida.

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