Why Does Your Stomach Hurt When You Laugh Really Hard?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

When you chortle or giggle, i.e., when the laughter does not have a high intensity, there is no extra strain on the diaphragm, as it functions at its normal rate. However, the moment your giggle turns to a guffaw, things change!

Except for the cynics and the truly miserable who fail to find any amusement in life, everyone loves a good laugh! We seek comedians, funny movies and memes that can make us laugh until we cry or even make us laugh so hard that we lose control of our bladder!

Clearly, laughter has many effects on us, and we are willing to deal with them because the pleasure we get from a good, hearty laugh is such a wonderful feeling! In fact, laughter has several health benefits, from reducing stress and improving blood circulation to boosting immunity. We will cover all these points in this article.

Laughter is universal and unifying; it helps break the ice and is notoriously contagious. If you see a person or group of people laughing, the odds are high that you might also join the laughter train. Laughing along helps us cope with our worries, even if it’s only for a moment. It creates a sense of lightness and reduces the burden of stress. That’s why so many hospitals and military bases invite comedians to make the ambience lighter and joyful.

Indian woman laughing at funny joke eating pizza with diverse coworkers in office(fizkes)S
Laughter is contagious (Photo Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Now the question for science geeks like us is: What exactly happens in our bodies when we giggle or chortle? And what makes our stomach hurt after a period of heavy, prolonged laughter? Let’s find out.

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Why Does My Stomach Hurt When I Laugh?

When we laugh, our whole body gets involved. Our jaw, our brain, our torso, our lungs and even our blood vessels get into the action.

As we ha-ha-ha, he-he-he and ho-ho-ho, our vocal cords start vibrating, and we laugh harder we exhale more rapidly. Because of this, our rib cage starts to contract, which can trigger sharp pain in the intercostal muscles located between the ribs.

In fact, intercostal muscles are jokingly referred to as the “hurts to laugh” muscle in the medical lexicon.

Thus, the ache in your stomach when you laugh extremely hard is due to the rapid exercising of the diaphragm (below the lungs and just above the stomach), leading to pain in the intercostal muscles. The smaller chortles and giggles are easier on the diaphragm, so it continues to function normally.

But as soon as the giggle turns into a guffaw, the diaphragm tenses up, the rib cage contracts and the muscles get a solid workout. It pushes the air out from the bottom of the lungs, which is why laughter is such a good aerobic exercise.

Human body internal organs. Stomach and lungs kidneys and heart, brain and liver. Medical anatomy vector infographics - Vector(MicroOne)
(Photo Credit: MicroOne/Shutterstock)

According to a study on the physical effects of laughter, uncontrollable howls of laughter can help you burn a few calories. The study found that laughing can increase the energy that the body spends at rest by 20%. To put it another way, if you laugh for 15 minutes, you could burn about 10 calories. That’s as many calories as you would gain from one bite of chocolate (depends on the chocolate and how large the bite is). That doesn’t seem like much, but every little bit counts.

Also Read: The Science Of Laughter: Why Do We Laugh?

Why Do I Pee When I Laugh?

You have almost certainly noticed that if you laugh really hard, you may end up wetting your pants—just a bit! You can admit it… we’ve all been there! That’s called incontinence.

It happens because when you laugh very hard, the abdominal muscles contract, which forces any fluid stored in the bladder downwards through the sphincter muscle, which is usually contracted and holds in the urine. However, when your body is tense and squeezing and reacting and laughing and crying all at the same time during a hilarious movie, it can be hard to keep control of everything!

Now that you know the physiology behind abdominal pain and the inexorable pee drain after a bout of really hard laughter let’s look at some good sides of a giggle.

Also Read: Why Is Laughter So Contagious?

Benefits Of Laughter: Is Laughing Good For You?

Laughter is an effective stress-buster. When we laugh, happy hormones, called endorphins, are released. These feel-good chemicals not only help relieve emotional pain but also physical and psychological pain.

Laughter improves respiration and circulation. Oxygen (O2) is one of the important catalysts for generating biological energy in our body. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. To ensure that our lungs remain healthy, an adequate supply of oxygen is required. Generally, casual inhalation fills only a quarter of our total lung capacity (tidal volume). The remaining three quarters remain filled with old not-so-fresh air (residual volume).

However, when we laugh, we breathe deeply and fill our lungs with more fresh air filled with oxygen. This fires up our lungs and respiratory system, which improves blood circulation of oxygenated blood into the body. Improved blood circulation can bring a healthy glow to our face as the cells begin to receive extra blood. Who knew that laughing could help you look younger for longer!

Laughing woman in marine shirt with curly hair over white wall(Mark Nazh)S
Laughing improves respiration, blood circulation and boost immunity (Photo Credit: Mark Nazh/Shutterstock)

Studies have also shown that people who laugh regularly have higher levels of T cells. T cells are like our bodyguards that protect us from infection. Therefore, people who laugh more have higher antibody cells, implying better immunity and lower risk of disease.

So next time your zany friend cracks a hilarious joke, sending you into a stomach-aching laugh attack, remember that it’s just the pain of an aerobic exercise that will benefit your lungs in the long run!

References (click to expand)
  1. Bast, E. S., & Berry, E. M. (2014, January 21). Laugh Away the Fat? Therapeutic Humor in the Control of Stress-induced Emotional Eating. Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal. Rambam Health Corporation.
  2. (PDF) Impact and Need of Laughing Medicine for Sound Mind .... ResearchGate
  3. Filippelli, M., Pellegrino, R., Iandelli, I., Misuri, G., Rodarte, J. R., Duranti, R., … Scano, G. (2001, April 1). Respiratory dynamics during laughter. Journal of Applied Physiology. American Physiological Society.
  4. DiLorenzo, P. C., Zordan, V. B., & Sanders, B. L. (2008, December). Laughing out loud. ACM Transactions on Graphics. Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
About the Author

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spearheads the content and editorial wing of ScienceABC and manages its official Youtube channel. He’s a Harry Potter fan and tries, in vain, to use spells and charms (Accio! [insert object name]) in real life to get things done. He totally gets why JRR Tolkien would create, from scratch, a language spoken by elves, and tries to bring the same passion in everything he does. A big admirer of Richard Feynman and Nikola Tesla, he obsesses over how thoroughly science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.