Swearing and pain

(Note: I accidentally posted a draft of this yesterday before it was ready for publishing. I deleted the draft and am reposting it today with some additional editing and new material. I apologize for any confusion.)

I myself do not routinely swear. But when I accidentally do something stupid and hurt myself, I will find myself involuntarily swearing. I am sure that many people have had that same experience or at least being strongly tempted to swear when experiencing pain. But why do we do that?

A study reported on by the BBC says that swearing may actually be helpful in reducing pain.

A study by Keele University researchers found volunteers who cursed at will could endure pain nearly 50% longer than civil-tongued peers.

They believe swearing helps us downplay being hurt in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo.

The work by Dr Richard Stephens’ team appears in the journal NeuroReport.

Dr Stephens, from Keele’s school of psychology, came up with the idea for the study after swearing when he accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer as he built a garden shed.

He recruited 64 volunteers to take part and each individual was asked to submerge their hand in a tub of freezing water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice.

They were then asked to repeat the experiment, this time using a more commonplace word that they would use to describe a table.

Despite their initial expectations, the researchers found that the volunteers were able to keep their hands plunged in the ice water for a longer period of time when repeating the swear word.

Not everyone benefited from swearing. Nine of the participants failed to show increased tolerance for pain. Despite the small sample size of 67, Stephens gets results that have p<0.001. I read the original paper (not freely available without a subscription unfortunately although you can read the abstract here) and found another interesting feature of the study:

Although both sexes experienced a reduction in perceived pain in the swearing condition, females did so to a greater extent… Swearing increased heart rate in both the sexes, but more so for females compared with males.

I am not sure why women experience greater benefits. Is it because they perhaps swear less in daily life? This may also explain the widespread stories in a bygone era of genteel women surprising everyone around them by swearing during childbirth, using words that others thought they wouldn’t even know, let alone use. The excruciating pain women report experiencing during the event may call for really strong language to be able to deal with it.

The same researcher repeated their study with 71 volunteers but with a new variable that asked participants how times a day they swore. (Again, the paper is is not freely available but the abstract is here.) They found that their earlier results (that swearing increased pain tolerance) were confirmed but they also found that that people who routinely swore had reduced benefit.

So the lesson is clear: don’t swear too much if you want to get the benefit of it while in pain.

Since the participants were asked to pick their own swear word to use to combat the pain, it seems like it only requires the user to view it as a swear word. I wonder if people who think that even relatively mild words like ‘damn’ objectionable would find that they would also reduce pain. How far down the chain of swearing would one have to go before the effect disappears? Would the word ‘heck’ work? Would the nonsensical swearing of Ned Flanders be as effective in combating pain?


  1. says

    I recently saw an episode of Mythbusters in which they performed this same basic experiment (on a smaller scale, of course) and came to the same conclusion.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    I deleted the draft … I apologize for any confusion.

    As it happens, last night I saw the link in the “Most recent” box and got 404’d when I clicked on it. So I said, “What the French?”, and then I felt better.

  3. JustKat says

    I do swear quite a bit – if I feel that I need to use an expletive to get my point across then I let fly for the most part.

    When I hurt myself, however, I tend to say “Oh, gosh” kind of under my breath. By my standards this doesn’t even come close to qualifying as a swear word, but it’s my go to when I’ve hurt myself, dropped something or bumped into something.

  4. ttch says

    When I got hit by a car many years ago, I was surprised at how much relief I got by screaming.

    Same principle I guess.

  5. cafeeineaddicted says

    There was a show on the BBC called Planet Word, where they did a live experiment about this. They tested how much longer one could withstand the pain of keeping a hand in icy water if they swore for the duration. It featured Stephen Fry and Brian Blessed.

  6. Amyc says

    That’s funny. I hurt myself yesterday at work, and found myself saying,”Fuck, fuck, fuck,” under my breath. I think it helped.

  7. left0ver1under says

    Enduring the pain of ice may sound like a good idea because it is unlikely to cause immediate or long term injury, unlike fire, pressure or electricity. But Mythbusters ignored one key factor that was visible in the show, and those who did the study mentioned here might have not accounted for that either.

    The people who lasted the longest in Mythbusters’ test were obese people. And even among the thinner people it was women who lasted longer than men, likely because women naturally have higher body fat percentages. It shouldn’t surprise given that mammals which live in cold climates has large amounts of body fat for energy and heat conservation.

  8. left0ver1under says

    Martial artists use controlled shouts when striking objects. You’ll hear pseudo-science stuff about “chi”, but likely as not, the shouts are done to release endorphins to counter pain. The use of profanity has a lot to do with anger, and I wouldn’t doubt that relates to its greater success at reducing the sensation of pain.

  9. says

    At the very least, it’s a verbal outlet for the goddamn PAIN.

    (Yes, my mornings tend to be filled with mutterings along the lines of, “ow, my fucking back”.)

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