Why Does Your Stomach Hurt When You Laugh Really Hard?

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Your stomach hurts from laughing too hard because of the contraction of different abdominal and respiratory muscles that are activated when you laugh.

A robust and hearty laugh—whether from a corny joke, an adept comedian, or the everyday absurdity of life—can make it feel like you’ve been running around the block! You may run out of breath and your heart rate increases. However, it also has the peculiar ability to make your stomach hurt, a rather unpleasant side effect of intense laughter.

What triggers this sensation? As it turns out, the explanation lies in the intricate interplay of various muscles involved in the mechanics of laughter. Let’s delve deeper to figure out how that happens.

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Laughter, A Dynamic Act

Laughter is a remarkably dynamic and uncontrollable action. Attempting to remain still while engulfed in laughter is a futile endeavor—if you’ve ever tried, you know it’s not possible.

Laughter is a dynamic and uncontrollable action. Attempting to remain still and stoic while engulfed in laughter is a futile endeavor—if you’ve ever tried, you know it’s impossible. When you laugh, the muscles around your eyes and cheeks contract, making your come face alive with a range of amusing expressions. To top it off, laughter makes you emit strange sounds, a symphony of “HA HA” and “HE HE”. If you were unfamiliar with the sight of someone in the throes of laughter, it would sound nothing short of absurd.

Laughter is highly dynamic and engages your body systems to an extent where you can barely manage to sit straight. (Credits: bbernard/Shutterstock)

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

The Mechanics Of Laughter – Muscle Contractions And Abdominal Discomfort

We can break down the mechanics of laughter into two primary components: the visible movements in the trunk region and the signature sounds we all recognize—HA HA, HE HE, HO HO etc. The two components are interlinked.

When we laugh, we exhale vigorously. The exhaled air whooshes out through the windpipe, exerting pressure on the vocal box or larynx as it leaves. This, in turn, makes the vocal cords vibrate and produce the characteristic ‘ha ha” sounds of laughter.

The intensity of exhalation is connected to muscle contractions in the trunk region. As you laugh, the abdominal muscles contract, which reduces the volume in the lungs. This drop elevates pressure around the lungs, resulting in increased expiratory output.

These forceful exhalations are a significant factor contributing to the discomfort you feel in the stomach during intense bouts of laughter. As the abdominal muscles engage, they exert pressure on the diaphragm and internal intercostal muscles, leading to diaphragmatic contractions that impact surrounding abdominal organs, causing pain or discomfort.

Laughter Yoga Study: Insights From Scientific Exploration

The fact that laughter imposes a physical demand on the trunk muscles has been scientifically verified. To substantiate this, scientists conducted a study comparing the activation of trunk muscles during laughter yoga to traditional back-lifting exercises and crunches. The results of the study were quite interesting.

The scientists found that a set of abdominal muscles situated on the lateral side—the internal obliques—showed more activation during laughter yoga as compared to their engagement in traditional exercises.

Laughter yoga is an excellent abdominal workout that spares you the monotony of conventional exercises.  (Credits: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Another set of abdominal muscles stretching from the lower ribs down to the pelvis—the external obliques—showcased an activation level that mirrored the intensity witnessed during crunches and back-lifting exercises. Muscles like the multifidus, erector spinae, and rectus abdominis showed half as much activation during laughter as compared to crunches.

Considering the findings of the study, it’s only fair to say that laughter can be an excellent form of abdominal exercise, sparing you the monotony of conventional exercises. Therefore, embracing a bit of discomfort during this aerobic laughter workout can yield significant benefits. It’s crucial to remember that, since the demand on your trunk muscles concludes with laughter, any fleeting discomfort is usually harmless and temporary. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that certain conditions could potentially turn this discomfort into a more significant health concern.

Also Read: Why Does Alcohol Cause Hiccups?

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Laughter?

Laughing is good for you, but laughing too much and too hard could be very bad for you.

One reported health risk from laughing is the potential to develop a hernia. A hernia develops when an organ protrudes out of the muscle or tissue containing it. They are commonly found in the abdominal region, where parts of your bowels can poke out through holes or weaker regions in the abdominal walls. The trunk compression from intense laughter could lead to strangulation of the hernia, cutting off blood supply and causing intense pain.

In certain instances, trunk compressions during laughter may escalate internal pressure and cause intense pain.  (Credits: fizkes/Shutterstock)

However, such cases are less frequent and almost any intense physical activity could pose a danger or risk, including regular workouts. In other words, don’t let these rare cases become a laughter buzzkill. After all, the benefits of laughter far outweigh the risks.

Laugh Your Way To Firm Abs!

Did you know that you can put your laughter to work and burn a few calories at the same time? Laughing heartily for 10-15 minutes can burn anywhere between 10-40 calories. It can serve as a delightful aerobic exercise that works out your respiratory and abdominal muscles.

Researchers also suggest that laughter isn’t just good for a chuckle; it can also play a role in complementing physiotherapy and rehabilitation. Particularly in cases where traditional exercises might be a challenge, the activation of both local and global trunk muscles during laughter can lend a stabilizing hand to your spine, giving your recovery process a unique boost.

The bottom line? Laugh your heart out, knowing that with every laugh, you’re not just sharing pleasure, but also giving your body a lighthearted workout!

References (click to expand)
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  2. Wagner, H., Rehmes, U., Kohle, D., & Puta, C. (2013, November 18). Laughing: A Demanding Exercise for Trunk Muscles. Journal of Motor Behavior. Informa UK Limited.
  3. Svebak, S. (2016, August 19). Consequences of laughter upon trunk compression and cortical activation: Linear and polynomial relations. Europe’s Journal of Psychology. Leibniz Institute for Psychology (ZPID).
  4. Buchowski, M. S., Majchrzak, K. M., Blomquist, K., Chen, K. Y., Byrne, D. W., & Bachorowski, J.-A. (2006, May 2). Energy expenditure of genuine laughter. International Journal of Obesity. Springer Science and Business Media LLC.
  5. So Funny I Died: How Laughing Can and Will Kill You.
  6. 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.
About the Author

Aishwarya is a research scholar pursuing a PhD in the field of molecular neuroscience from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. She is an avid reader and a bird lover. She loves to sing and finds solace in music. She turns to writing to escape the monotony in life. She is a tad bit philosophical and is ever curious to understand where and how spirituality meets science.

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