Smile for your COVID-19 vaccine - research says it'll hurt less

A new study from the University of California – Irvine has found that smiling and grimacing can help ease the pain of a vaccine — assuming you sincerely mean the facial expression, that is. The news comes amid the current flu vaccination season and just ahead of the planned COVID-19 vaccine, which will require two doses to be effective.

Though the flu vaccine is typically administered with a short, very slim needle that doesn't cause much pain, anxiety over such vaccinations can be extreme for some people. Deliberately and sincerely smiling or grimacing while getting the vaccine — and the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine — may help reduce the perception of pain associated and make the process less distressing for patients.

That's according to the new study, which found that these facial expressions can reduce the perception of vaccine pain by up to 40-percent. As well, a big smile that creases the corners of the eyes was found to 'significantly' reduce the stress response associated with the injections, according to the researchers.

To test the potential benefits, the researchers tasked 231 participants with self-reporting pain and emotional distress while receiving an injection with a 25-gauge needle, which is the kind typically used when administering the flu vaccine. The participants were tasked with smiling or grimacing during the injection, with those participants reporting the pain at about half the level of participants tasked with keeping a neutral expression.

The study's principal investigator Sarah Pressman explained:

Our study demonstrates a simple, free and clinically meaningful method of making the needle injection less awful. Given the numerous anxiety- and pain-provoking situations found in medical practice, we hope that an understanding of how and when smiling and grimacing helps will foster effective pain reduction strategies that result in better patient experiences.