Researchers have found that swearing when one is in pain can act as a powerful painkiller – at least, for those who don’t normally use expletives. For these people swearing in the face of genuine pain is up to four times more effective than it is for more regular swearers they said.
For the study they divided young adults into two groups. One of the groups was those who normally utter fewer than ten swear words a day, and those who utter up to 40 daily. All 71 were asked to dip their hands into ice cold water and hold them there as long as possible. They were first asked to do so while repeating a non-swear word, then again while repeating a swear word of their choosing.
Results showed that those who usually swear less often were able to withstand the icy water while swearing for up to 45 seconds longer than when they did not swear. But the frequent daily swearers were able to withstand the icy water for just ten seconds longer compared to when they did not swear. The research was carried out by academics at Keele University and will be unveiled at a British Psychological Society conference in Glasgow next month.
According to lead researcher Dr Richard Stephens the results show that swearing can release pain-killing endorphins. “Swearing provokes an emotional response in the face of stress akin to the “flight and fight” response (how the body reacts to perceived threat or danger),” he explained. The researchers think that swearing induces a flight-or-fight response, and thus, “nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception.” He added, “I think the benefit of swearing as a response to pain lies in the field either before medical intervention arrives or for minor injuries…You stub your toe, you let fly with some expletives and you move on. But as our new study shows – if you overdo casual everyday swearing, then it seems that you would not get the benefit of letting fly with an expletive at that moment when you injure yourself.”
But Dr Stephens advised against official NHS backing for cursing. “Swearing is impolite and has connotations with rowdy behaviour and I’d suspect advocating its use in healthcare would cause more problems than it would solve…So in a healthcare setting, the usual range of analgesics should continue to be applied,” he said.