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July 13th, 2009
06:32 AM ET

[BLEEP!] That hurts!

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

OK America, I confess: Sometimes I can be a little bit of a potty mouth. (Mom, maybe this is not a great blog for you to read.) Yes, I know those dirty little words are unbecoming to some and I really should watch my language (and I really do try!) but sometimes, when I'm walking through my condo and I stub my baby pinky toe on a table leg and the pain takes my breath away and brings tears to my eyes and makes me freeze with my foot mid-air in ridiculous pain....well, I can't be held accountable for anything four-lettered I may say. (D**n it!)

Thankfully, Dr. Richard Stephens and his team at Keele University in the United Kingdom just published a study that says swearing actually has a pain-lessening effect. (See Mom? It’s healthy!) When we swear, we increase our threshold for pain, meaning we can bear it longer and don't feel it as much. Stephens is not sure why this happens, only that for some reason, "swearing appears to increase our pain tolerance."

Like those moments when I stub my toe, Stephens came up with the idea to study this after he accidentally whacked his finger with a hammer. "I swore a bit and then around the same time, our daughter was born. My wife swore throughout her labor...and the midwife said don't worry about it, we hear that language all the time." Not surprising, says clinical psychologist Paula Bloom. "From my own experience of giving birth without drugs to a 9 pound, 11 ounce child, I can imagine I had quite the little truck driver vocabulary going on."

For the study, Stephens asked the participants to submerge one hand in nearly freezing water for as long as they could while repeating a curse word. Later the participants submerged the same hand again, this time repeating a word they would use to describe a table. When people were cursing, they kept their hand in the water for 40 more seconds than they could otherwise. So what were the words that made that possible? Turns out they were different for everyone. "We decided at the outset that people would give us their own swear words," Stephens said. "Swearing is quite personal and what one person finds extremely offensive, someone else may not find offensive at all." That being said, the usual suspects topped the list: s**t, the F word and British slang – bollocks!

All joking aside, many people find swearing to be incredibly distasteful, regardless of when or why it happens. Bloom thinks this study may change that. "This removes the morality piece about language. We're so quick to judge and sometimes our judgment interferes with science. We're walking around thinking [swearing] is a bad thing...it's not really." Stephens agrees. "Swearing has gotten very bad publicity– it's a negatively construed thing. But the positive aspect of it is swearing self-regulates our emotions. It can have a beneficial effect."

What do you think? Is swearing helpful or distasteful?


soundoff (253 Responses)
  1. Cranky Uterus

    OMG, swearing is ESSENTIAL for those going through failed infertility treatments and/or miscarriages. Swearing online with my fellow infertile myrtles helped me cope with the staggering physical and emotional pain of losing two second-trimester pregnancies and having 6 failed intrauterine inseminations and 5 failed in vitro fertilization attempts (IVF).

    Anyone who thinks my swearing was unnecessary or distasteful should walk a mile in my infertile shoes!

    July 13, 2009 at 07:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Deidre

    H- yeah! I so F-- agree with this one. Sorry mom!

    July 13, 2009 at 07:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Paula

    Yes, I swear when I stub my toe, (but I try to contain myself in public). I'm a little afraid that a study like this will give people permission to swear whenever they like, not just in painful situations.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bryan

    Boxers get hit and hurt, they punch back which has the effect of reducing pain. probably related to adrenalin. Swearing is a form of punching back. Anger is similar, it masks the pain of an insult until you calm down and are left with the pain.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Bill

    "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me."

    Since the meaning of any communication is determined by the interpretation of the receiver.....swearing can only "offend" if one allows it to.

    Or to paraphrase William Shakespeare; "No thing is either good nor bad except that we make it so"

    Live With Intention
    Dr Bill Toth

    July 13, 2009 at 07:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Ryan

    It is more likely that yelling increases pain tolerance. The words yelled do not matter.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Saganhill

    Darn-it! Is that all you say? When that happends to me I sometimes make up expletives not to mention the many derivitives of the F*** word. Sure makes me feel better.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Karl Lewis

    I have a Comercial Drivers License, and I don't have a Potty mouth because I am a "truck driver" I have one because I am a Marine!

    July 13, 2009 at 07:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Axel Bushing`

    Swearing also serves to defuse anxieties!

    I always wonder what a person with Tourette's Syndrome would say if they were never in their lives exposed to conventional profanity.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Saganhill

    Also, for all you people who think these are dirty words. They are not. We have decided they are for some odd reason. George Carlin is 100% correct about these words. Thats all they are–words.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jim

    I am an Ivy-League educated 41 year old, and I am one of those people who decorate my casual conversation with F-notes for emphasis and color (e.g. "now THAT is f-ing hilarious!"). Needless to say, I swear when I'm hurt, too. I think swearing helps release emotion and tension, and its use in everyday speech helps emphasize the words to follow. I think it also adds a bit of levity to the conversation, and we all like to make people laugh or smile.

    Of course, use it in the wrong circles (e.g. holier-than-thou religious types, or when a child is presen – ugh), and you are toast.! Once, I heard a hilarious exchange between two guys, one who had his 3 year-old with him) at a ball-game. The firsts guy says, "Do you believe how f-ing hot it is?" The second guy becomes outraged, points at his son, and says, "HEY! Watch your mouth! I've got my f-ing kid here!" He immediately realized the irony and they both about fell out of their seats laughing.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Joe Boeger

    If we take away the negativity of swearing, is it swearing at all? Would the study be legitimate in that case? Even if it was "acceptable" to swear only when injured, it may not have the same effects. The possibility is that the mind may not think about the pain as much if the person is worried that they will "get in trouble" if someone hears them swear. People grow up learning that some words are swear words and you don't say them, and will get punished if they are said. If you take that away, the pain threshold may not be increased at all.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. truckdriverswifr

    I beg your pardon..... why make the "truckdriver" reference ????? It is unbecoming of ANYONE to generalize..as a doctor you should know that after all I assume your educated.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Shoestrings444

    Swearing may not be a bad thing in order to serve as an outlet for peeople's pain, but it becomes bad when swearing is targeted towards people and not towards your baby pinky toe. Interesting study, thank you for the blog.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Luke

    I don't think it would work as well if it were socially acceptable. 🙂

    BTW, is there a bibliography entry for this study? I'd like to actually read it, and a conventional citation would make it easier to look up.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Lynne

    Well, I've always known swearing helped me when I was in pain! But never thought I'd get "back-up" from the scientific community.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Allison

    It sure as hell helps me!

    July 13, 2009 at 07:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Gregory

    I think this is hogwash. Try the study again, but this time have the participants just scream their heads off, instead of swearing. I'll bet that they can endure the discomfort even longer.

    This is yet another example of modern day science's tendency to "prove" what the scientists want to believe.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Phil

    I believe it's true about swearing taking the pain away. I work construction and pinch fingers, smack shins, stub toes often. Swearing about it is part of the job.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Jordan

    Cursing does seem to help in pain situations. It helps me and others I know. It also is natural and helps many of us adjust to sudden surprises and to frustrating situations. No, we don't know why, but WTF, if it helps don't knock it.

    July 13, 2009 at 07:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. william gaffney

    It's normal for anyone to swear when you stub your toe I never swear
    except when someting painfully physical or emotional happens

    July 13, 2009 at 08:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Jack

    The part where they point out swearing is extremely personal (words vary) is the most salient and relevant; It's not the usage of a word that society considers "bad" which is lessening the pain – this isn't any justification for swearing.

    Notice: All curse words are short, and have harsh consonants

    How about the ones rhyming with "truck", or "punt", or "hit" ?
    Compare the sound, and exertion of voice needed for those with "glossy" or "smooth" or "colonial", which might have been used to describe a table.

    Making NOISE, not saying specifically ugly words is what lessens pain, because you're taking your mind off it by doing something engaging.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. DD

    Another example of a poorly executed (or reported on) study. Where is the control group that used words other than swear words? Could it be that saying something, anything, over and over forces you to breath more, or otherwise distracts you from the pain? No control that isolates curse words as having the benefit as opposed to any words, or even non-sense words. It is a shame we waste so much money on these poorly conceived and executed "studies".

    July 13, 2009 at 08:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Henry Miller

    I've just sent my wife a link to this. 🙂

    July 13, 2009 at 08:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. bokeh123

    After accidentally closing the door on my finger last night, I'd say BOTH - as evidenced by my perceived increased tolerance of the pain and the fallout over my choice of words. I know I didn't make Mom proud, but I would say my thumb was happier.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. J Cooper

    I wonder if it's really the swear word or just the fact that the individual is expressing his/her pain. I would think screaming or using other exclaimation-type words would have the same effect. I had a friend who used to scream the national anthem when she got hurt. Not only did it express her pain, it was damn funny. I seriously doubt this study will make people look at swear words in a new light–as if exclaiming them in pain makes them moral versus just using them all the time. Please. By all means, people, use your words, but don't turn it into an ethical argument.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. R. Mencer

    I sure hope my students don't see this. They already use plenty of language- they may try to use it as an excuse to swear more. Despite the results of this study, swearing will continue to be taboo in many workplaces and circumstances.

    On another note, the science teacher in me notes a few details missing from this blog. First, how many people were actually involved in sticking their hand in freezing water? Were enough people involve in the experiment to be considered a true experiment? Is there another explanantion for the results? In other words, was it the swearing itself that helped the participants block the pain signals, or was it the fact that they were allowed to express their discomfort through language? In the second test, the author indicated that particpants had to use a word used to describe a table. Sorry, that does not have the same expressive power as an expletive that is almost always associated with discomfort or unhappiness. I don't associate "smooth" or "flat" with pain. Never will.

    Excellent article, though.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Kristin Steiner

    All I know is that I was able to give birth to my daughter without any pain medication by dropping a few F-bombs.

    It works!

    July 13, 2009 at 08:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. sparkman

    D*mn right it's helpful

    July 13, 2009 at 08:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Amy

    I swear all the time and miraculously, I still have friends and family who love me. As a professional writer, I am more embarrassed that I can't come up with more original and colorful expressions than the standard dirty words. What would Shakespeare say?! Aside from that, cursing doesn't bother me. I've even found that my cursing has let other people feel more comfortable–they don't have to pretend to be something they're not and can feel free to just be themselves because they assume I won't be shocked by what they have to say. My children use a few questionable words but are under strict orders not to use them publicly or there will be serious consequences. They are only words, after all. And once in a while I will come out with some new expletives that are actually acceptable–try calling someone a son of a mother sometime–it sounds profane yet it's perfectly okay for the kids to use. I fail to see why cursing is such a big deal–it just releases anger and frustration and no one gets hurt.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Dale Hemming

    Allowing oneself to get angry and to openly express it is the secret. It's the high energy venting that reduces the pain. The elevated emotional state releases all sorts of anti-pain chemicals as your body prepares to attack and fight.
    I've used this method for years to release tension and alleviate pain. I never bottle anything up. Keeping one's anger in and unexpressed is a sure way to create lots of stress on one's system and to cause all sorts of health problems, physical and mental.
    I'm 65 and my blood pressure is perfectly normal even though I'm very obese and almost never exercise. Thanks to healthy venting.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. eileen

    Maybe the shorter average time for the second immersion in
    freezing water is because it is the *second* time, rather than
    the use of swear words. To do this right, they should have
    half the participants swear first, and the other half use words
    to describe a table.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. karen

    Swearing will send you to hell. DO NOT SWEAR TO RELIEVE PAIN NOW, THAT YOU WILL PAY FOR LATER!

    July 13, 2009 at 08:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Vickest

    As a writer i've given a lot of thought to swearing in my fiction. It is a universally recognized shorthand for communicating anger, pain, or panic. It's what many lazy people use when they can't be bothered to think up the exact words to express their feelings. It's quick and decisive. The ending sounds are hard consonants. It feels good to say them, and sometimes to grind them out. Oh phooey doesn't carry the same weight. You can thrust them from your mouth with great force and divert your attention from that throbbing toe. It can also piss off some people, which might be a fringe benefit.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Steve

    Mark Twain, a world class potty mouth said that 'swearing often provides a relief denied unto prayer'; and that 'every home should have a cussing room'. I have wondered about the value of screaming. Is it possible that cursing is a more controlled scream?

    July 13, 2009 at 08:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Jessica

    I would think that part of the power in swearing, as far as lessening pain goes, is that the words are some what forbidden in every day use. So let's keep considering them taboo and then when we stub our toes we can use that language to lessen our pain. The study did show that using every day language had no effect on lessening pain.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. chris

    Why is it that because science comes out with a study that justifies our wrong actions it is should suddenly be acceptable... swearing is distasteful, rude, and shows a lack of education. There are plenty of ways to show emotion and swearing is a poor way to show emotions or feelings. It is interesting that people need a science report to justify their wrong behaviors... Just because it increases our pain tolerance doesn't mean it is suddenly good for us and society. Specific illegal drugs relive pain but now suddenly they are not ok to use... weak argument.

    This is an example how unstable we are as a society; a science report has to come out for us to judge what is acceptable or unacceptable. Whatever happened to values and the moral compass does those change with a report? No!!! There is a bright future for the coming generations!!!

    July 13, 2009 at 08:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. tm

    Swearing when used during a painful episode is fine. When every other word is swearing during normal conversation that's just boorish.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Deanna

    I am a born and bred potty mouth. Dad's a Marine, Mom's a sailor. It's a stress reliever, a pain reliever, frustration venter, but I am able to control it around others without making myself suffer even more. I swore during labor, during my many miscarriages, when I sprained my ankle, when I broke my arm, when the computer crashes, when my IBS is acting up, when I don't want to get up, etc etc. Maybe it releases endorphines, but I always feel better after a good cussing streak.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. ViviMack

    Swearing is vital if you work with horses. Barn girls are known for their 'shocking' language. Let me ask you. I you are galloping a horse across a wide open field and he happens to spin on you, you fall to the ground which is not dirty it the one spot but a rock out cropping and you break enough bones to land you in surgery...you know you're broken up badly and will miss a competition the following week...yes you swear up a storm! Swear at the horse, swear at the rock, swear at your broken body...maybe even swear at your friends trying to help you up. ROCK ON CUSS WORDS! They do make you feel better! BUT...there is a time and place for foul language. Grandma's nursing home is not one of those places.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Theresa Younis

    At the pinnicle of the tension from my divorce, I heard on the radio a commentator say that , "Swearing was another form fo stress relief which is acceptable in our society for men, but not for women." To which I exclaimed, "FTS!" From that moment on, I consciously used it as a stress buster and also allowed my children to express themselves through the trauma of divorce in a similar fashion. It can be socially dangerous for children in our society but in our home, they cannot be disrespectful to their parents or to each other but they can express their pain and frustrations in a safe environment.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Sunshine

    Its funny but true, I swear when exercising, running with shin splints and biking with lactic acid filled quads, and weight training.. is not a fun feeling.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. ANonya

    Swearing is a sign youre pissed. Being Pissed is what makes the pain better. F^%%$ DUH!!!!!!!!!!!!! It's F*&%$$# amazing how many different ways people use words to change the actuality. (wow, I feel so much better now.)

    July 13, 2009 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Lefty McRighty

    As the great George Carlin pointed out "Some words have the power to offend, and if you in the company of people who are offended by those words, you have no right to say them. But all alone, they are JUST words, and words can never hurt you."

    July 13, 2009 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Nikki, NJ

    I gave birth to an 11 pound 2 ounce, 21 inch long baby with no drugs, no stitches, nothing.
    During my labor & pushing, my midwife didn't flinch when I lobbed a few F-bombs & Sh-t grenades...it kept me calmer & able to focus more.

    I'm glad science has backed up what I already knew LOL

    July 13, 2009 at 08:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. elizabeth

    MWAHAHAHA in your face mom, i told you swearing helps.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. John Q.

    If way back the word F___ was used instead of love would the word love ease the pain today ?? For some the way the word love is used today solves a lot of problems as does the F___ word..A rose by any other name..

    July 13, 2009 at 08:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Lon

    I would curse when the big, bad dentist hurts me but all I can get out is "mywygforfolk"

    July 13, 2009 at 08:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Thomas

    I used to swear, now that I am a practicing Christian, when in pain I say "Praise the Lord".

    July 13, 2009 at 08:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Roberta

    There is absolutely NOTHING better for instant pain relief than a lot of good cursing. "Pain relief" covers many topics and I have confidence that using my favorite expression, "well, for F....'s Sake! keeps my blood pressure low.

    July 13, 2009 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
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