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Does swearing relieve pain?

By Judy Foreman
November 9, 2009

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Q. Does swearing relieve pain?

A. Holy @//!#!, does it ever! Or so concludes a British study published recently in the journal NeuroReport.

The idea for the study first occurred to psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in North Staffordshire, when he hit himself on the finger with a hammer and let loose with a few choice words. It solidified when his wife swore gustily during a breech delivery of their daughter and one of the midwives “mentioned that women often swear in childbirth, which I found intriguing,’’ said Stephens in an e-mail.

So he set up an experiment in which he compared the pain tolerance of 67 male and female undergrads when they uttered neutral words and when they cursed as they endured a painful stimulus, in this case, putting one hand into icy water and leaving it there as long as possible. In most people, swearing increased pain tolerance - they could keep their hands in the ice water much longer - and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing.

“It seems to [work] via the emotional content of swearing - people appear to shock themselves into a state of emotional arousal (the fight or flight response), which is known to have a pain-lessening effect,’’ Stephens said. Women and men both benefit from swearing, he added, but it’s likely that the more a person swears habitually, the less shock value it has during pain.

All this makes sense to Jamie L. Rhudy, director of the Human Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Tulsa. “Swearing could reflect the activation of brain circuits involved in emotional processing,’’ said Rhudy. The emotion circuits connect to “descending’’ circuits - nerve signals that travel down from the brain to the spinal cord - which could alter the way in which pain is processed, he added.

So should you swear when you’re in pain? Go for it, said Stephens. “What’s the harm in swearing if it helps you cope? Provided there are no children around, of course.’’

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