Swearing mitigates pain

Some experimental evidence to suggest that swearing makes pain less traumatic, though the mechanism by which is does this shit is unclear:
The study, published today in the journal NeuroReport, measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the chilly exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer.

Although cursing is notoriously decried in the public debate, researchers are now beginning to question the idea that the phenomenon is all bad. "Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it," says psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England, who led the study. And indeed, the findings point to one possible benefit: "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear," he adds.

Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief (via /.)


  1. Oh, gosh golly gee whiz, I can’t wait for all the hilarious comments to this one.

  2. It seems to me that it has more to do with how you’re swearing than the actual swearing; like a keeya in karate focuses your mind and power. You aren’t used to using that neutral word in that situation so it isn’t as effective. White belts who feel a little silly saying keeya when they first start eventually learn to use it. Have someone substitute “nougat” for their favorite curse word for a couple of weeks first and then see how they do with the ice water.

  3. There clearly needs to be more study on this relationship, seriously. I mean, a word is just a word, it’s not like expletives have magical powers, sSo it must matter how the “victim” relates to the word they shout out. I would like to see the experiment expanded to include non-expletive words like “Pain”, “Hate”, “Bad”, and “No”, or even to ask one group of volunteers to make inarticulate shouts or growls. I’m also curious to see how well euphemisms work as a substitute for expletives, as well as non-neutral, positive or soothing words.

    The underlying concept that pain tolerance is augmented by certain vocalized reactions is fascinating. I wonder if there is a connection with turrets or other diseases.

  4. Easy way to test this:

    (hits hand with hammer),


    Nope, still hurts.

    Isn’t empiricism fun?

  5. Which reminds me of a wonderful cartoon in the Guardian that appeared around the opening of Gilbert & George’s “Dirty Words” show in the Serpentine Gallery, London, a few years back.

    Surrounded by the works, which are large single-word expletives in frames, the assistants hanging them injure themselves and say things like “Mercy, that hurt!” and “Oh dear, I seem to have smashed my finger!”

  6. It’s still goddamn unclear whether this shit can be replicated in double motherfucking blind trials, or if bitch ass researchers can empirically observe corresponding neurological activity in some cocksucker’s brain. Notwithstanding that, quite intriguing.

  7. I contrived a ridiculous experiment once to see if men or women cursed more for a research methods class. I don’t even remember the outcome. All I really learned is how you can basically prove any point by devising a psycho/social experiment. I do like the article and find the thesis interesting, but the idea that a “scientific experiment” like this one “proves” anything is silly. good. silly. fun.

  8. for me it’s all in the fricatives… mostly ‘shhhhh’ for pain… ‘fffff’ for cold… (we didn’t have central heating until 16 years ago, sliding naked bodies between icy sheets was definitely made easier with a ‘f-f-f-frigg’n’fuck’ or even a ‘f-f-f-freeeeeezing’)

  9. Once, during a three day long marathon of sleepless final art project insanity, I nearly completely amputated the tip of my thumb with an x-acto blade. Staring at the damage, still in shock and realizing what had just happened before the nerves themselves had, was inexplicably inspired to rush over to the stereo and cranked the volume on the track that was queued up (in this case it was a particularly hectic one by the Master Musicians of Jajouka). Held my head there, directly in front of the loudspeaker driver.

    Darn it if it didn’t help overwhelm the pain for the first few minutes while applying compression!

    I wonder whether neuro-physiologically something related isn’t at work here.

  10. Um, anyone ever heard of adrenaline? No need to curse, just scream an angry scream and all sorts of pain killers will course (?coarse?) through your veins.

  11. In my opinion, it more with you than the actual swearing-how; keeya in karate as the focus of your thoughts and strength.

  12. JeremyNYC, ‘course’ was right. It’s the same usage as the ‘course’ of a river. ‘Course’ as in the path you follow is actually a metaphor based on that.

    And if you read the post, the other group were allowed to chant a neutral word; it didn’t help as much as a swear word.

  13. And isn’t it kiai? Ki, energy, and ai, sensing, thus your kiai is your “power feel”? As in Aikido, the way of sensing energy?

    Keeya. Humph.

  14. All across the world school teachers and nuns are pained to hear of this, luckily they now also know of a simple way to alleviate that pain. . . .

  15. Once crushed my foot under a chunk of metal. Cursing really helped take my mind off the pain, even if it probably didn’t do anything.

    Thing is, pain perception is mostly cognitive. That’s why the placebo effect works so well.

  16. I love it when scientists discover things that the Buddhists/Hindus have known for millennia. The mind can’t focus on two discrete objects simultaneously.

  17. I use ice water to relieve joint pain now, just groans escape my lips. I’m with #21 & #22. Hits from hammers hurt and the expletives used to help. It has changed with age, at 20 I sounded like #10. Hits that 40 years ago would have me exhaust my repertoire of four letter Anglo Saxonisms and invent new words now elicit merely a groan. It is who not what.

    Where’s the study of massive trauma that doesn’t hurt at all at first? There are a lot of Wily Coyote moments out there where the injured person feels no pain until they look down and the wound.

  18. I’ve known this for a while. It works even better if you don’t curse about trivialities. Spending a good deal of time in my wood or metal shop, I get banged, cut, burned, and abraded on a daily basis. Throwing a heavy object while cursing really helps.

  19. I’m reading a very funny book right now called Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling. The use of swearing in there is pitch perfect. The characters, fraught with so many inner states of fucked-off-ness, curse up and down the pages and it is wonderful :) In this case, the swearing mitigates the emotional pain of the characters, and by proxy, the reader.

    Why I should derive some small comfort from hearing the raunchy exploits of a band on the skids in Amsterdam is beyond me… :)

  20. Then there’s always the ones like when I blew out my knee a few years ago — it hurt so damned bad I could hardly breathe. My brain couldn’t even form words. After friends heard my primal screech and found me sprawled on the floor, all I could do was nod or shake my head and remind myself to breathe, because I kept holding my breath!

  21. Audax Axon, thanks for the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

    Tak, don’t worry, just as some people prefer whole albums, some people still read the whole thread.

    WolfiesMa, you rock! I wish you were in our co-op.

    Xopher, I miss you. Felt your frustration the other day, it was painful.

    Off to bed. Had a great day at the bar. Wish we could have a BB day before I die.

  22. Too bad this theory isn’t applicable to bigger contexts, or today George Carlin would have been alive and possibly immortal.

  23. Gaaah! This scientific study suffers from emotional deficiency…

    Anyone with a little empathy understands that the reason it hurts less when swearing is that it helps you channel the anger that can distract you from the pain… And that adrenaline that someone mentioned is probably part of it too, just like that someone said.





    (Can’t believe no one had made that reference yet…)

  25. I remember reading about a hypothesis that the idea of “bad words” (which, if you think about it at all, is pretty strange) are an adaptation for avoiding violence. You blow off steam by releasing special words associated with aggression, instead of by beating one another with rocks. And a fragile society survives another day.

    And that, with all due respect to George Carlin, is precisely why they should remain “obscene.” Their transgressiveness gives them their power, and that power is very useful.

  26. @xopher: “(?coarse?)” was a reference to the cursing, not an actual spelling check.

    And yeah, I see that the other group was allowed to chant, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that if we watched video of the two groups we would see markedly different body tone and tone of voice between the two groups, with the cursers (not cursors ;) ) being noticably angrier, even with the sound turned off. And my notion, though I’ve got no grant money with which to “prove” it, is that it’s the anger that cuts the pain, not the word or phrase that is uttered.

  27. The thing about anger/adrenaline is that it sometimes feels sort of good in the moment, but long term, its basically poison to the body and brain (imho)

    And thanks, Nail. :) At least we have the co-op of the mind, right? That groovy place where you, me, Bo Lazoff, and a few dozen of our closest friends get together and talk about the passion. Just can’t seem to get enough! :)

  28. While I wouldn’t put much stock in this silly little study, I suspect that it may be true, to some small degree.
    Mothers, teachers and society have beat into our our heads (well, mine, anyway) that swear words are bad and inappropriate, so when I hurt myself and expletives fly out of me, all these yellow penalty flags fly in my mind. Maybe that distraction relieves the pain a little as I look around for anyone who may be offended.

  29. Oh, Jeremy…I’m sorry. Duhh on me, of course (coarse?). I can’t imagine why I totally missed that.

    And you may have a point there. I’d like to redo this study with people who are trained in glossolalia, as I am. I can curse in languages Not Of This Earth, and that Man Was Not Meant To Know. I wonder how much difference that would make to normal people (an experimenter would be extremely rash to infer anything from my case).

  30. #21 is right: Just Scream! Yell! Made the force coming out be greater than the force (pain) coming in.

  31. The brain treats swear words differently than other words, storage and retrieval characteristics, level of emotional arousal generated by the utterance, etc. This is seen in Tourette’s syndrome and various aphasias. Steven Pinker has written on this topic. So it may very well be that swearing increases pain tolerance.

  32. Xopher is correct – “course” was proper in that context. Of course, “coarse” could be applicable in the context of the article itself, and if you leave your hand or body in the ice water long enough, then “corse” might be appropriate. Gallop on, you coursers!

  33. If swearing works for you, fine. But jumping around and yelling “yow, yow, etc.” as loud as possible works for me, even though it upsets my wife.

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