Swearing up a storm might actually relieve pain, if we’re to believe a British study now getting plenty of attention. People in the study were asked to stick their hands in painfully cold water and see how long they could tough it out—those who repeated swear words had a higher heart rate and lasted longer in the icy water than those saying a neutral word.
The same research got a lot of attention two years ago, but the latest presentation has been adjusted, tweaked and repackaged and is now eliciting a fresh round of headlines.
But letting loose a few four-letter words doesn’t create the most pleasant noise for those within earshot. We talked to pain expert Dr. Steven George from the University of Florida Center for Pain Research and Behavioral Health about why cursing might seem to help some people, and if there are more socially acceptable alternatives. George, an associate professor in physical therapy, has researched how people’s perception of pain—for example, if they fear pain or overly complain about it to others—influences what they actually feel.
How can swearing possibly take away your pain?
It depends on the type of person. The more expressive you are, the more that may be a good way to cope with pain. It’s the difference between holding back and letting loose. Whereas if you’re not allowed to express that, it might have more of a psychological response. (That is, if you’re normally very verbal, and you keep quiet, that can make the experience seem more painful and difficult than it might otherwise.)
The exact mechanism is almost impossible to say because so much is involved—the endocrine system and other systems. Your heart rate can change for many, many reasons.
Do you think you could use non-curse words like dangit or fudgsicle instead?
I think there’s a very good chance that would happen. You can probably get people to list other things they say when they’re angry and you could get similar results. Swearing is still forbidden, so there’s a little bit of a charge about that.
What are some better ways to relieve pain, say, if you stubbed your toe?
There are classic ways to override the pain signals that people almost do instinctively—for example, compression, holding your toe. It activates different nerves and activates pathways that are known to inhibit the pain.
The beauty of that is that it works. The bad thing is it’s short-term. You know if you grab your toe, it feels good, but then those messages are overrun and it doesn’t become as effective.
(But researchers care less about stubbed toe pain that goes away, and more about why some pain lingers.) The acute pain episode is only of interest when it’s translated into a chronic pain episode.
The reason people don’t develop chronic pain when they stub their toe—because it hurts like hell!—is because they look down and see there’s no tissue damage.
You feel less pain when you look at your stubbed toe and it’s not bleeding?
It reduces the context of that pain. It’s viewed as much less threatening. Fear and anxiety don’t cause the pain, but they can magnify the perception of the pain. That’s why the study looked at fear and catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing means what?
Catastrophizing is what someone does who always assumes the worst possible outcome. That’s viewed as not a great way to cope with the pain.