A Curse or Two Might Quell the Pain

July 13 (HealthDay News) -- Ever blurt out a swear word after stubbing a toe or experiencing some other painful incident?

Your outburst might actually help lessen the pain, new research shows.

In a study that suggests bad words aren't all bad, college students who repeated swear words while submerging their hand in ice-cold water were able to withstand the frigid temperatures longer than those who kept quiet.

Researchers from Keele University in England asked 67 undergraduates for five words they might shout after hitting themselves on the thumb with a hammer. The students were then asked to hold their hand in 32 degree Fahrenheit water for as long as possible.

When repeating their favorite curse word, students were able to keep their hand in the water for an average of 155 seconds, compared with 115 seconds when they did the same experiment but didn't swear.

Students also reported perceiving less pain in the cold water while swearing, feeling less anxiety and less fear of the pain, according to the study. Its findings are reported in the Aug. 5 issue of NeuroReport.

The researchers suspect the effect was not just because repeating the swear word distracted the students from the pain. Those who swore had increased heart rates, indicating that profanities might jumpstart the fight-or-flight response, the study authors noted.

And women's heart rates increased even more than men's.

"Swearing may raise levels of aggression, downplaying feebleness in favor of a more pain-tolerant machismo, most likely mediated by classic fight-or-flight mechanisms," said the study's lead author, Richard Stephens, a lecturer in psychology at Keele University.

"Swearing has been around for centuries," with citations in literature dating to at least the 1500s, Stephens said. Research has shown that swearing can be cathartic, providing emotional release. In other situations, it can signal aggression.

"Our paper suggests a further function of swearing -- that the emotional aspect of swearing may be useful to individuals, to moderate their pain response," Stephens said.

Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, said the study furthers the understanding of why swearing has persisted across cultures.

"I have been urging researchers to look at swearing as a tool, to get beyond the construct of swearing as being a moral issue and look at why we do it and what it does for us," said Jay, author of "Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech."

Typically, taboo words arise from sex, excretion, religion, death, illness and social groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities.

Though sex and excretion get the most play in the United States, Stephens said, the Dutch have been reported to use such words as tering (tuberculosis) and kanker (cancer) as swear words, Stephens said.

In other contexts, swearing is sometimes used for humor or self-deprecation.

"Swearing allows you to emote, to express anger, fear, surprise, joy or frustration," Jay said. "It also allows you to get that anger out and express it unambiguously."

Stephen's interest in studying swearing began after he hit his finger with a hammer and swore in response. During labor, his wife also shouted a profanity or two.

"One of the midwives commented that she had heard much worse language in the maternity ward," he said. "This got me thinking about the relationship between pain and swearing."


SOURCES: Richard Stephens, Ph.D., lecturer, School of Psychology, Keele University, Staffordshire, England; Timothy Jay, Ph.D., professor, psychology, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams, Mass.; Aug. 5, 2009, NeuroReport

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