Pain and profanity. The two have always gone together. If you doubt it, just stub a toe.
And although most of us try to control our language when we’re in pain, a new study would seem to suggest a better course of action: Cursing. It really does make you feel better.
Dr. Richard Stevens of the School of Psychology at Keele University in England was the lead author of the study, which was published in a recent issue of NeuroReport, a neuroscience research journal.
“I think everyone already knew that swearing can help relieve pain, but ours was the first study to actually try and test the theory scientifically,” he says.
Stevens became interested in the topic from personal experience. Painful personal experience.
“Two things, hitting my own finger with a hammer while building a shed and observing my wife during the birth of our daughter — when the going got tough she found it useful to swear.”
Stevens also says he was surprised to see the midwives actually encouraging his wife to swear during childbirth.
The researchers used 67 Keele students for the study. Each was asked to put his or her hand in 32-degree water for as long as possible. When repeating their favorite profanity — at an even volume and pace — the students were able to keep their hand in the water for an average of 155 seconds, 40 seconds longer than when they did it without swearing.
Not only did the pain tolerance of swearing students increase, but so, too, did their heart rates. Their perceived pain also decreased.
According to Stevens: “Swearing is emotional language. We think that people had an emotional reaction to swearing (indicated by the increase in heart rate), bringing about the fight or flight response, which is known to increase pain tolerance (make people more able to withstand pain).”
Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, says the HealthDay news service that Stevens’ 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,” says Jay, author of “Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech.”
Stevens says the most popular words were those two four-letter standbys for sex and excretion known to every third-grader.
And the research isn’t over. Stevens says that his group is looking at swearing as protection from stress, links between swearing and emotion, and whether overuse of swearing decreases the pain-relieving effect.