Does Swearing Reduce Pain?

While I’m not an expert handyman, I don’t mind trying to fix things around the house (except electricity – no, thank you). My skills are such that I’ve occasionally hit my thumb which invariably elicits a yelp swear word from me. Over the years, I’ve wondered why I feel better after the outburst. Does swearing reduce pain?

Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in England, has designed multiple experiments to find out. In one version, undergraduate students twice placed their hands in ice-cold water for as long as they could; one of the times they uttered a swear word and the other they used a more common word. Stephens also measured the participants heart rates and galvanic skin response (GSR tracks changes in sweat gland activity typically caused by emotional stress).

When using the swear word, participants kept their hands in the ice water almost 50% longer. In addition, their heart rates increased and their GSR went down. Stephens concluded the participants experienced less pain while swearing.

Pain used to be thought of as a purely biological phenomenon, but actually pain is very much psychological. The same level of injury will hurt more or less in different circumstances. Richard Stephens.

If you don’t swear when you feel pain, you might consider starting. Stephens conducted another experiment to test whether the effect only worked on people who were comfortable swearing in front of others or who at least had sufficient practice doing so in their daily lives. Participants were asked how likely they were to swear when in pain or angry. The results showed “it didn’t make a difference; swearing worked equally well.” Even non-swearers got relief.

Whether you’re used to swearing may not matter but the word you use does. An unpublished Stephens experiment showed that the strength of the expletive did have an impact on how long you could keep your hand in the ice water and how much pain you felt. Milder words such a “darn” or “shoot” had more effect than a neutral word like “tree” but less effect than a stronger word (cue George Carlin’s 7 dirty words). If you’re going to use the technique, it isn’t worth being half-hearted.

The next time you get chastised by someone for swearing as a response to a painful situation, show them this article. You’ll feel better and maybe they will too.

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2 Responses to Does Swearing Reduce Pain?

  1. Jeff Winter February 11, 2019 at 5:38 am #

    So according to your premise, a typical / stereotypical professional sports coach should live a relatively pain-free life. Seriously – a very interesting article, Jonathan.

    A bit of a tangent related to the statement that pain is a psychological phenomena vs just being a physical / biological one…Dr. John Sarno wrote extensively about the mind-body connection. I personally read his material as a result of my own fairly severe and sustained back pain. A simple summary of his work as follows. It represents another example of how powerful our minds can be, and the interesting relationship between the mind and the body.

    An orthopedic surgeon, somewhere along the line, Sarno became interested in patients with back pain. He noticed that many of these patients had pain which did not respond to standard medical treatments, and that their pain was in any case was not related to any demonstrable injury. He came to the conclusion that, in many instances, this pain had a psychological and emotional basis, and he found that, when such patients were educated in the true cause of their pain, a large proportion of them recovered their health.

    Now immediately, if the above paragraph were read by, say, a hundred patients with severe back pain, a large number of those patients would become very annoyed. So, they would mutter to themselves, this **** Sarno is saying that back pain is all in the mind. Well my ***ing back pain isn’t in my ****ing mind, it ****ing well hurts, and any ****ing **** who says otherwise is….

    And so on.

    Sarno is not saying that back pain — anybody’s back pain — is ‘all in the mind’. Far from it. It’s real pain. What Sarno argues, in essence, is that in cases where there is no injury to account for the pain, then there must be some other cause. One possible cause is what he calls tension myositis syndrome (TMS). What happens in those cases is that various powerful emotions, largely unconscious, bring about a tension in the muscles of the back. This tension causes real (not imaginary) pain, because the muscles are deprived of oxygen. And Sarno’s major contribution to medicine is that he has found a way to treat such patients with a high degree of success.

    To oversimplify greatly, the treatment consists of explaining to the patient the physiological basis for TMS, and inviting the patient to consider, with or without professional assistance, the possible unconscious emotions which might be the underlying cause.

  2. Ted Sapountzis February 11, 2019 at 11:37 am #

    Great post Jonathan, perhaps this is why “people who swear may be happier, healthier and more honest”:

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