Weird Science

Do you curse like a pirate when you stub your little toe? It turns out that the streak of expletives could be easing your pain.

Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of England's Keele University won the Ig Peace Prize in 2010 "for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain."

Here's their theory: Although a common pain response, whether swearing alters individuals' experience of pain has not been investigated. This study investigated whether swearing affects cold-pressor pain tolerance (the ability to withstand immersing the hand in icy water), pain perception and heart rate.

In a repeated measures design, pain outcomes were assessed in participants asked to repeat a swear word versus a neutral word. In addition, sex differences and the roles of pain catastrophizing, fear of pain and trait anxiety were explored.

Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. However, swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophize. The observed pain-lessening (hypoalgesic) effect may occur because swearing induces a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception. (NeuroReport 2009, 20, 1056).

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