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Swearing In Moderation May Ease Pain

Swearing really can relieve pain, but only if one doesn’t do it daily.

Researchers at Keele University in England have considered this topic before, and most recently, they studied whether people who swear more often in everyday life get as much pain relief from cursing as those who swear less frequently.

My Hand, 1992 by styro via Flickr and Creative Commons licenseResearchers recruited 71 participants who completed a questionnaire that assessed how often they swore. Pain tolerance was assessed by how long participants could keep their unclenched hand in icy water (5° C, capped at 5 minutes) while repeating a chosen word. The word was either a swear word (self-selected from a list of five words the person might use after hitting their thumb with a hammer) or a control word (one of five they might use to describe a table). Interestingly, one person was excluded from the study because they did not list a swear word among their five choices.

Results appeared in NeuroReport.

Swearing increased pain tolerance and heart rate, and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. But, the more often people swear in daily life, the less time they were able to hold their hand in the icy water when swearing compared with when not swearing.

Researchers originally hypothesized that swearing is a maladaptive pain response, but the opposite was true. Swearing produces a hypoalgesic effect, more so in women than men, and there was a greater increase in heart rate in females.

Another gender difference was uncovered in people who tend to make a big deal of bad situations–to catastrophise. Swearing’s hypoalgesic effect was present in females regardless of that tendency, but in men, swearing’s efficacy diminished the more they tended to catastrophise.

“While I wouldn’t advocate the prescription of swearing as part of a medicalised pain management strategy, our research suggests that we should be tolerant of people who swear while experiencing acute pain,” said one of the researchers in a press release. “Indeed, I occasionally receive letters from members of the public recounting episodes in which they, as adults, have been chastised for swearing during a painful episode. They feel that my research findings vindicate their actions.”

As they damn well should.

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*


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