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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. Bradley

    This study ignores the social dimension of language. People are offended by others who are swearing. What effect does that have? Would it make any difference to have a stern, maternal image in the room – i.e. reminding you not to swear? Or would the pain threshold change if someone stood in the room and frowned as you shouted the expletives? Language is not just self expression. It communicates to others, so other people are involved. And community standards of decency do apply when you're out in public.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Breast Cancer in NY

    I am 53 years old and recently diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. I will be undergoing a double mastectomy and reconstruction in August. I am sure I will be doing plenty of cursing – and crying – after surgery. If you are offended by my language, I apologize in advance; my advice is listen with an understanding ear and don't make remarks, and don't judge me. Be thankful it's not you.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Harry Branch

    Ask any WWII vet what the reply was when asked to surrender by the Germans. The reply is usually two words containing only seven letters.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. ChurchLady

    I sneezed and ripped all my back muscles. The pain was horrible and they took me to the hospital in an ambulance. Every time I hit a bump or they moved me, I screamed at the top of my lungs, Mother F-–.
    I don't do that! I mean it was totally involuntary, it just came out of my mouth. Now I know why. Thank you CNN.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Tim

    Obviously some people should read the study again. It clearly explains in the study that there was a control group where the individuals were asked to repeat a non-curse word in the same fashion. Hope that helps.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Kym

    Unfortunately, swearing does seem to ease the painful stimulus at the time.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dude

    Swearing in my line of work is a routine part of our vocab. I have worked in a state prison for 15 years now. Sometimes used to express anger, Frustation, Stress, surprise ( "get the f**k out of here"), and pain. In one way or another it is a type of release that we all enjoy, And we All use, sometimes without even realizing it.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Myth

    I think it's distasteful. If you want to swear, have the decency to make sure no one is around. I get tired of hearing people swear every other word. Once in a while it's ok if you stub your toe or something but some people make it part of their every day vocabulary and it's just obnoxious, lacks refinement and finess and really makes that person look illiterate.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Dawn

    I think it is more the emotional release or the brain focusing on the language center for a moment that helps with pain. At the same time, studies have shown that getting worked up (i.e. crying, panicking, hyperventilating) makes pain worse by stimulating the cerebral cortex. The calmer you remain the less physical pain you actually feel. I would rather feel less pain than be able to tolerate it longer.

    Using profanities happens when people are angry or in pain, but to say that peppering your conversation with it adds color isn't acceptable. First, it is so overused that it lacks shock value anymore and it shows a weak vocabulary. If you want to add color to your conversation, try the Shakespearean Insult generator. I find the use of obscenities in casual conversation a sign of someone being trashy and no matter how educated you are it makes you seem limited language wise. I was brought up that using bad language in front of other people is a sign that you don't have respect for that person.
    If it is something you don't want your children to say or you mother to hear you say, then do you really need to say it?

    July 13, 2009 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Moi

    When I get off the phone with continuously rude and/or hateful customers or a customer who's gone overboard in their demands, I swear "at them" and "about them" in the privacy of my cubicle. It helps a lot. My nearest coworkers who think I am a pretty nice lady just laugh and say I swear like a sailor. They understand and often do the same thing.

    I don't use swear words in conversation as adjectives or verbs, but only in the ways this study suggests, and yes, it helps to release the anger and frustration that I cannot direct towards the people who deserve it. It's always a a private turrets episode.

    It's good to know a study shows its effectiveness.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Baseball Jesus

    I bet that George Carlin is smiling somewhere right about now. I was raised in a household with a mild mannered father (never heard the man swear) and a southern belle mom, from Georgia. The ONLY times I heard my mom swear were exactly what this study shows... when she stubbed her toe or if she spilled hot water on herself while making coffee. It looks like my mom instinctively knew what she was doing.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. J.M.

    Of course swearing helps! Almost any emotional outlet within reason helps in difficult situations – had a good cry lately?
    What's interesting is what people term as a bad word. The F-word is pretty much universally reviled, but for many years I had a small farm and also worked with wildlife, and everyone I've ever met refers to "s-" . On the rare occasion when a newcomer would say "dung" it would produce laughter among those present, and "scat" simply provoked head-scratching confusion!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. living in chaos

    Swearing is just words. it's not boorish, offensive, rude, etc. It doesn't mean a thing as far as people are concerned – only the individual who says it. Swear words are no different than saying chair@#%$#@ when one stubs their toe if the emphasis is on gettting out that raw feeling of pain.

    I live in a tony suburb and I can't tell you how many moms/dads are SO upset when they hear any little johnny or janey swearing. They don't care if little johnny or janey are saying unkind/mean/derogatory words to their fellow peer – just swear words – as if somehow that is so much worse to one's ears.And meanwhile mom/dad are either stealing from the public, cheating on their spouses, spreading rumors, etc. Even the media are so worried about offending someone's sensitive ears – they block all swearing from this type of comments section – which as far as I'm concerned is hypocritical censorship. Oh, well @#$%@! LOL.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. valerie

    I feel this is completely true! Not just with physical pain but also with emotional pain! It really helps when driving and some one scares the crap out of you by cutting in front of you, screaming "F- you" really calms me down 🙂 Now I have a friend who swares whenever she feels like it, it used to be hilarious but now I just find it repulsive... there are certain times and places to curse! Thanks for the Study

    July 13, 2009 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Frank from Baltimore

    The last paragraph states everything you need to know about this society...and where it's heading.
    No personal responsibility for anything. We are now allowed (almost expected) to do what we want and say what we want, as long as it suits our needs.
    I wonder if people would be ok if those curse-words included racial or sexual vulgarities. Because based on what I just read – it's about making us feel better without regard for others around.
    Swearing is the language of the simple-minded.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Jimmy

    I think it has to do with diverting the brain's attention from what is hurting to thinking of the colorful language and if you, as some others have pointed out, change them to less vulgar versions (mutha fudgecake and son of a beach ball are my faves) it diverts more to the task of manufacturing them and speech than your pain.
    I know this was the case when I fractured both wrists falling down icy steps on Christamas eve.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. JAC

    Is "dagnabit" a cuss word? It helps me ...

    July 13, 2009 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Joshua Jackson

    It's not swearing if it's not considered immoral. If cuss words were stripped of their distasteful connotation that morals have placed upon them, then their use would not be a release.

    Just my theory.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Molly

    Actually, swear words are directly related to "plosives" and "nonplosive" or implosive consonants. I took a diction course in college that stated plosive consonants using a hard g or d ("guh" or "duh"; "puh" or "shuh") are satisfying to emit. Interestingly enough, nonplosives ("mmm" or "nnnn"; "Lllll") are less likely to be formed into a potty word!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Kate

    Chris apparantly you have never experienced real pain. Try child birth without cursing ! I have fibromylagia and have been in pain for 4 years, 7 months and about 3 weeks... Catch up to me and then we can talk about how cursing is such a "wrong action". It's just a way to deal and quickly release built up anger and frustration without physical side effects. This falls under the category of until you walk in my shoes... Yes there are other ways to release emotion but frankly I'd rather curse than cry.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Dwight Srock

    What else can we make excuses for.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. serenitynow

    I do not like to curse (have 2 kids), but when I hurt myself, I yell out "farfegnugen!" from that old Volkswagen ad campaign. It is still a F-word and it really does feel good to say it. 🙂

    July 13, 2009 at 09:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Navi

    I've also noticed that the more vulgar the word, the better the effect. Perhaps this is adrenaline, or even a psychological answer to pain? (after your about 14, "ow" just doesn't seem to cut it as well.)

    July 13, 2009 at 09:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. LC in Canada

    I agree. I swear too much overall, but when I hurt myself and then swear, I feel better!!!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Allison

    I agree with Gregory, Someone could scream or do anything similar and it would take someone's mind off of the pain for a bit and have the same effect. I agree, this is just another attempt for scientist's to prove something. Besides, swearing is any word you can think of used in that manner.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Joan Weytze

    Perhaps this is why some otherwise genteel women swear like sailors when giving birth.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Steve

    F&%$in' – A right, I swear – but I still experience mild to moderate pain as well as erections lasting for more than four hours. I've consulted my physician, and will keep you all posted.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. ernie ent

    what a tremendous study! it will be fascinating to see a followup that traces brain and physiological effects. but on a species level, maybe the broken nature of our materialistic, fearful now global culture actually led to the perceived increased in swearing, which started in the 60s. f**k that sh*t!!!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. kurt becker

    I was born and raised in Long Island NY, where swearing was a method of talking dirty and tough so others would not mess with you. Now as a 56 year old chronic pain patient who lays in bed 90 percent of the time, I can assure you that cursing absolutely works in reducing pain, at least for me, as it was also a part of growing up. When young , it is a defense mechanism, and now as an adult it helps to curse at my pain, I feel better after cursing the pain, and NOT people or, something or some higher power, -or whining – "why me?" For some, cursing may cause a release of helpful brain chemicals. If "my $%#@#*&^%$ leg is KILLING me today", I may feel better just letting everyone within earshot hear about it. A simple method of attaining some empathy from others, it just may work for some (especially us New Yorkers). Kurt

    July 13, 2009 at 09:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Donna

    When ever I stub a toe under a door, smash a finger in a drawer, trip and fall over an open dishwasher door, fall off the front porch step and sprain my foot,or break teeth while eating chicken thigh, I usually yell out a very loud mother--! along with a very loud grunt. This seems to relieve the shock of the experience and horrible pain. I notice my son will hold real still and bite his lips and for years I have been telling him to say the worst word he can imagine when he gets hurt, I've been telling him that this seems to help me. Hmmm, now it's a fact, that swearing the worst word you can imagine is scientifically a proven relief. Wow, I was right! What's hilarious, last year I had a slip and fall, with multiple facial injuries, 2 broken arms and a shattered knee cap. Didn't swear, not once.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. char

    f*%# yeah!!

    at age 23 or 24 i slammed my finger in the tailgate of my jeep and my mom was standing right there. i just gritted my teeth. it wasn't till my parents were long gone and i was well into my 40s that i started using "words" to alleviate my pain. it's a distraction and it helps.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. matt

    I sometimes say things I shouldn't when in pain, just like all of us. But Caitlin, yes, you will be held accountable for what you say.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Billy Pitts

    Question: is this Study going to change your life, is it going to make you swear more, or is it going to make you swear less? the answer is probably neither, sit back, chill the F**k out, and do whatever you do to relax. This isn't going to change any of societies views, and swearing doesn't make you a bad person, nor does it make you a good person. just because someone swears doesn't make that person a homicidal maniac, but some folks avoid a person who swears like they have the plague. Just relax, folks. this too shall pass....

    July 13, 2009 at 09:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Phoenix Storm

    Man! I wish I had known this two days ago when I sat for my second round of pain in the tattoo chair! I might have handled the pain a little better. lol

    July 13, 2009 at 09:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. EMSFarmington

    Some of your readers do not take the time to read the whole article before posting.

    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.

    There is a control group the used words other than "curses".

    Cheers all

    July 13, 2009 at 09:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Una

    I heartily agree! And instead of apologizing to my mother, I'd like to THANK her for introducing me to this method of pain reduction. When we were kids, my brothers were so wild, she'd regularly chase them and swat at them and just as regularly miss her target. She'd end up whacking her hand into a bannister or a doorjamb and 'break a blood vessel' and then yell out 'bun of a sitch' or 'you birty dastard'. Yes – she was a REVERSE curser!!! But it worked for her and I've taken up the battle cry. Dad-gummit!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. AnnieP

    Heck yeah, swearing helps. When I fell and broke my back, swearing seemed to be all that was able to help me get back to the house with the pain I was in. The words just popped out, no controlling them. Got the endorphins going!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Kat G

    PS

    I dont believe we should all be out there cussing in public to set off bad examples for little ones. We need to figure out how to boost our adreniline even more so without swearing..........

    Canadian Cusser

    July 13, 2009 at 09:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Me

    Hey Cranky, don't be mad but some people just aren't meant to be parents, give it up. Just be thankful is wasn't two hundred years ago where they would have burned you alive or beheaded you for being a wtich. 😉

    July 13, 2009 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. char

    I agree with Ryan @July 13th, 2009 7:46 am ET

    I dont think using profanities has any significance. It's just releasing your anger or frustration overall that has these effects and it's different between individuals how they want to express themselves.

    Just look at Ned Flanders...

    July 13, 2009 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Peter

    “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.”

    – So they're saying it shouldn't be seen as being so offensive. But then wouldn't those words lose their power to soothe?

    July 13, 2009 at 09:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. John

    Swear words are just sounds. I could never understand why some people get so upset about swearing as long as it is not around children. F'in rediculous.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Dave

    Finally, someone speaks my f#%king language!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. jc

    I think we can all agree that some things in life are morally wrong. And, for those items, it is not a valid argument to say that they are OK because they might make us feel better (or, in this case, perhaps allow us to be more tolerant of pain). Instead, I believe that we are stronger individuals for following our convictions rather than what might 'feel' better.

    As for me, why would I choose to compound my life with swear words, when there are so many beautiful aspects of life that go unsaid. Perhaps not everything, but enough.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Bryan

    Good grief. I am officially ashamed of these "scientists".

    Anyone with half a brain could figure out that cursing has absolutely nothing to do with pain relief. The temorary relief comes from the tension and release that accompanies a persons curse.

    In other words, you will get the same effect by grunting forcefully without the unnecessary cursing. As to why this releaves the pain, real scientists could better explain. However, it may have something to do with how tension can shift blood away from an injured area. Sometimes people will hit something as well, and this likely helps shift blood and attention away from the injury.

    Regardless, I hope that scientists will spend their time in a better way than to use science to justify their "potty mouths"!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Laurel

    Swearing does have a place, but needs to stay in its place. I don't have a problem with someone swearing if they hammer their thumb, express embarassment for an error (e.g. misspelling something on an important document, locking their keys in their office), or even express extreme astonishment at something. However, if swearing is used vituperatively against another person, that's where I draw the line. That is offensive and disrespectful.

    My mom once told me that if you swear too often, it loses its impact. Save it for something important. That makes sense also. Teenagers using swear words in every sentence don't generate much impact on others. People get bored with it. However, if someone is normally soft spoken and respectful, a swear word in just the right place can have quite a substantial shock value.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Eddie

    IT's not the word, but the emotional release that is helpful... if you scream "CHEESEBURGER" with the same INTENT that you scream the F word, it will help....but if you scream it just to try and and FEEL Silly doing it, it won't help.... it's in the intent....

    When I was in college, I had a professor that had a very colorful vocabulary. To the point it almost got him fired when he offended a student... (I was not said student) In an effort to quit cursing, anytime he felt the need to say a bad word, he shouted "CORNFLAKES!"

    And he shouted it with as much vim and vigor as if he'd just relinquished the most profane verbal tirade imaginable.... And it worked. He completely stopped cussing, even outside of the campus...

    Because the intent manifested itself... he might have SAID "CORNFLAKES" but he was thinking whatever curse word happened to be relevant....

    July 13, 2009 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Lydia

    My favorite swear word is actually not a swear word at all... Butterscotch. I don't remember when I started saying it, but for some reason, cursing that word when I dropped a shelf on my foot was soo much more satisfying than any of the more traditional curse words, and it had the added benefit of not having me spouting sailor-talk in front of my new landlady.

    I have long understood the power of profanity, which is exactly the reason why you shouldn't use it all the time. Too many people spit the F-word three or four times a sentence, so it loses it potency. What good will it do them when they really need it, like when they drop a shelf on -their- foots or have a really, truly, no-good rotten day? My classmates in High School never understood why I didn't cuss, and I tried to explain to them that I cussed when I needed to–if I cussed all the time, who would know when I really meant it? They finally got to experience what that meant when I had a really bad encounter with one of my teachers and started using expletives in the lunch room. I didn't have to say very many, and I didn't have to say them very loud, but everyone at my table got the message pretty quick that I meant business. Now, if any one of them had sat down at our table using the words and tone I'd used, no one would have noticed because that was just the way they talked anyway–they'd all used up the potency of their profanity.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Sgt. Elliott

    Im a maintenance mechanic and a former soldier of 14 years. I swear a blue moon about nearly everything, and really dont care about society's retarded misconceptions on swearing, not only does it lessen pain, it makes me feel better!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Billy B

    Da**, my shoulder f'ing hurts.....

    Feels better now

    July 13, 2009 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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