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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. Louis

    I can understand how this phenomena may have evolved.

    Consider this:
    *Elevated stress and emotional or physical pain cause decreased higher level cognitive ability. Hard wired(instinctual) or subconscious behaviors are likely to emerge uncontrollably in these situations.
    *We are a social species, and respond with concern to others of our kind that are in pain or distress.
    *A social species would benefit from having a kind of 'yelp' that signals imediate distress as it would increase likelyhood of survival.

    I would gather that curse words originated as distress signals, and that using these signals whilst in pain or distress releases a 'reward' of pain reducing chemical to increase the likelyhood of an individual 'yelping' for help. It would also follow that 'crying wolf' or 'yelping' when not distressed would be seen as socially unacceptable since constantly 'yelping' would reduce the benefit of using the 'yelp' as a distress signal(quite possibly why people frown upon cussing in regular conversation).

    Interesting note... if cuss words equate distress, then the phrase 'F*** you' could easily translate to '...distress to you'.

    I find taking a look at social/biological phenomena from an evolutionary standpoint often quite rewarding!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. mary

    Swearing is such a non event. I try to not swear (especially in front of my teenager) but there are times when it slips out. Sometimes you have to drop the F-bomb to get your point across! I have pretty much cussed freely since about age 15 and my parents are well aware of it and make jokes at times about my at times colorful vocabulary. It's just not that big of a deal. As an aside, the phrase "my bad" is far more annoying than any curse worde could ever be!

    July 13, 2009 at 09:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Blutrache

    Why is swearing considered so taboo? I can spout off a litany of foul words that arent considered swear words and still bring forth the same effect as if I had said F%$# or S&^%. The only reason I see for these words to be distastefull is that certain people chose these words to be considered foul and distastfull. During the growth of familly organization that came about during and after the great depression these words suddenly became the worst thing anyone could say, never before were these words frowned upon in such a grand scale. There is fundementally nothing wrong with using these four letter words. The only reason they are frowned upon is because they were looked down upon by the American church during the great depression and to this day the primary source of hatred toward these words is from American Christians. Swearing isnt a sin and never was. Nobody ever got killed because of a swear word. Stop living in the golden years and accept that America is beyond these cliches of the past. Open your mind and stop being so dense and simple minded.

    July 13, 2009 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Stephanie

    I think it's pretty f***in' helpful. 😉

    July 13, 2009 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Breanne

    I remember when I cracked my ribs, that was the worst pain I have ever expierenced. My husband and I were just laughing yesterday and the amount of swearing I was doing when that happened. Can't wait till we get pregnant and I'm cussing like a sailor during labor!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. James

    Karen, give me a break. I am very sorry to ‘talk trash’ on a message board, but sometimes people are just a little too ignorant. ‘Swearing will send you to hell’ that is one of the most ridiculous comments I have heard in a while. Sure, do not go around using God’s name as a form of ‘swear word’ but do you not understand the nature of language. When your all holy bible was written these words that we use now did not even exist. They are just words, some socially unacceptable… but c’mon who really give a *#%@ing %$#@!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. paul

    Golf is a four-letter word and I utter many more four-letter words while out on the course. It's a good release of tension.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Linds

    This is a great article! I laughed out loud at it because I know it's true. I dropped a treadmill on my toe and broke it recently and all I could do was cry and yell out the F word because it hurt so bad. I also have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised at the intelligence of most of the comments. I guess you always get silly stuff like "this will send you to hell" but for the most part people have made thoughtful comments. Good job guys!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Clever Linguist

    I'd bet it has something to do with inhibitions. When we release the swearing inhibition, it probably unlocks a part of our brain that allows more hormone receptors to turn towards pain relief.

    I would also bet that people who don't have this inhibition, who casually swear constantly, also don't get the pain relief benefit when it's needed.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Chris

    If swearing becomes more socially accepted, as this article suggests at the end, wouldn't it lose its effectiveness? Perhaps its effectiveness lies in the pitting of oneself against society in general by use of a word considered unacceptable, and the slight increase of adrenaline due to this increases the pain threshold. Just a thought.

    Also, the Shakespeare quote is "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
    I'm not normally one to nitpick, but the way it was quoted below misses the point entirely.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Carol

    i agree completely!!!!!!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Heather

    There's a flaw in the logic that says "Swearing reduces pain so hey now it's ok to swear" The REASON swearing reduces pain must have to do with the fact that it's forbidden. Otherwise, shouting synonyms for "table" would have worked just as well in the study. So, if we want swearing to retain its pain-killing power, we must keep swearing forbidden. Watch your mouths, kids.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RLG

    Dr. Gupta,
    This is about the first time I've agreed with you on any f***in' thing. And it's a lot cheaper than buying the b***s*** pharmaceuticals from the a**hole corporations that you shill for. Glad you're not surgeon general, we'll have a hard enough time getting national health care as it is!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. J. Shepard

    It may relieve the stress of the person doing the swearing, but it sure increases mine and that of my family, as by-standers who have to listen to this all the time from a disabled husband. Yes, I understand his flusteration, but it doesn't really help anything for him. Anyway it doesn't seem to.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. John

    Could it be that all those Black gangsta hood types that are constantly swearing and offending yuppie white people, are actually in a constant world of pain?

    July 13, 2009 at 10:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Geoff

    Just last week I was incredibly sick, and sat on the couch for hours just repeating s–t and F-bomb. Somehow I thought it helped.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Cussing Thomas

    I can't believe the number of people who apparently didn't read the article properly. They complain that shouting any word or making noise would have the same effect as swearing but the study clearly states participants did the cold water experiment twice.

    The first time they shouted a swear word and the second they shouted a non-swear word to describe a table. Participants were able to hold their hand in the cold water up to 40 seconds longer when saying the swear word.

    Swearing is not always appropriate but it serves a useful and necessary purpose.

    Cussing Thomas

    July 13, 2009 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. kh

    Serenity now!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. MikinAZ

    Karen hit it on the head...at least to the point of why we are brainwashed not to swear...it is based in religeon. Sorry Karen, not all of us beleive swearing will send us to what you call, "hell". Oops – am I allowed to say that? It's a common swear word...are you allowed to say that Karen? Oh yeah, it's just a place right? Well the others are just words. Tell me, what is the difference?

    July 13, 2009 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Melissa

    That makes sense. I noticed it a long time ago. Not sure why that is, though.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. karen

    sometimes, after i've hurt myself, i start to swear. but the words get jumbled up and i end up inventing new swear words. they sound ridiculous and i wind up laughing at myself. but it DOES feel good to get out a few f-bombs now and then. 🙂

    July 13, 2009 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. jb

    Jim, you're a snob. Who cares if you're Ivy League schooled.

    This is bad science. The exclamation is what is tension reducing. They cannot prove that specific words are what helps. If it makes any of you feel better (including the Ivy Leaguers) and more justified, well, you were going to say it anyway. Ironically, I always believed, Jim, it was a sign of a LACK of education to speak that way.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. lazer007

    Ok Ok!!!.........do we say OOHHH.....Look dear!..i just cut my finger off!!!...darn....NO!!!....we say h-!!!..S...!!!..G..!!!..D..!!!..It!!!...i just cut my!!!..f.....!!!.finger off!!!!..so yes Swearing!!!...tell's everyone ..i have a EMR..i have!!!..did a Real Bad Thing Here!!!...to myself!!!..i need HELP!!!...
    so yes!!!..it Hurt's!!!..by the way..i'm not afrad to die !!!..i just Don't want to be there when it Happen's!!!!! 😉

    July 13, 2009 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. greg

    there is no place for swearing.....we are an educated-civilized society and we have no place for potty mouths....just makes one look stupid, uneducated and dwarfed in overall use of their God given mind.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Madi'sMom

    Cranky Unterus: I know exactly what you mean. I had several miscarriages and many failed IUI attemps, but we did IVF and it was successful the 1st time. I completely understand the emotional straines it puts on a person not to mention the physicial. I am currently going through fertility treatments again to implant our frozen embryos' in 10 days. I pray for you that you will find success in these treatments.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Bob

    I've been swearing since I was a little kid. I swear a lot, especially when I'm alone, and almost always when something pisses me off (the car ahead of me goes too slow or my computer freezes or the TV channel goes on the fritz, etc.). I swear in certain company-we all swear. I try very hard not to swear at work, and I almost never do, because I'm always embarrassed after that.

    I've tried over the years to cut down on my swearing, and slowly I have managed to do so. It's a hard habit to break. Swearing a little is OK, but swearing in the wrong company alienates people, and swearing too much just looks bad. Life is full of little frustrations, and it's nice to vent a little and enjoy a little swear, but more than that can just be counterproductive.

    I like the Mark Twain comment.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Jaron

    Lack of education? Yeah, you don't hear Harvard or Princeton students swearing now do you?! Seriously?

    July 13, 2009 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Tom

    "Oh my heck" just doesn't cut it – any of you with tender ears had best plug them if I stub my toe.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. ArmyWifeMT

    My husband is a soldier and, as is common in the military subculture, he swears every-other-word. I hate it. I swear too, but I don't have a 4-letter word in every sentence. Beyond the constant assault on my ears and the trips to school when my 5-year-old tells a friend to "f.o.", I hate that he swears so much because it makes him sound ignorant. He is far from ignorant, one of the most intelligent people I know in fact, but he presents himself in this way and it is nearly impossible not to make judgments based on the language his chooses.

    That being said, I have to wonder if there is a physiological reason for why we swear when we hurt ourselves. You will have to forgive me because it has been awhile since I took physiology, but I remember learning why we rub a "boo-boo," and that it confuses our brains. Essentially, that both impulses are not traveling at the same rate of speed and receiving the sensation of the rubbing decreases the sensation of the discomfort and/or pain. I wonder if the act of producing sound has a similar affect and that is what prompts us to do it?

    July 13, 2009 at 10:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Sue

    I find swearing distasteful, I always have and I always will. I think people who swear show a laziness in their vocabulary. They can't think of anything better to say. I have let out a scream, groan or yelp when I stubbed my toe, had a biopsy, had my children and it had the same effect as the 4 letter words in the "study.".

    July 13, 2009 at 10:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Carrie Sparks

    In modern term, this is hogwash. People will believe anything just to justify their BAD behavior. Swearing is wrong no matter what kind of pain your going thru. When Jesus was going thru the pain he was in for us, he was praying for the ones that hurt him. We should be Christ like if we want to make it to heaven,(the place where there is no pain.)I think if this is all you can think of to do reshearch on, then is is a sad time. There are children hungry, and this garbage is all you nuts can find to spend money on. Help our fellow man and tell them that Jesus still saves souls. turn to God while there is still time, and he'll take the bad words from your mouth and fill it with PRAISE.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Patti

    WOW. I am so relieved. No wonder I don't feel much pain. I've been talking like a sailor since I was 12 years old. Glad I don't have to feel guilty any more! My entire family needs to read this and feel better about themselves. Thanks, Dr. Gupta! You made my ***** day! ;^)

    July 13, 2009 at 10:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. girlie

    I think it shows a lack of intelligence, and I at times have been pretty stupid.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. jason

    it's yelling...not swearing...swearing is not required.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. RB

    I swore throughout the entire process of getting my first tattoo (low on my ankle; the Achilles was a bitch!). It helped, I have no doubt.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Carolyn Adams

    I've always felt that swearing = anger. So when someone swears, it seems to me they're expressing some kind of rage. I would guess that expressing rage puts us in a different mode, one of action instead of suffering, which distracts pain centers in our brain.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. rl

    I'm thinking about Karate competitors. When breaking planks, they let out short audible sounds. And competition weight lifters do too. The heavier the weight, the more sound they utter. But they DON'T swear! This does not justify anything regarding language, but audible utterances probably do help pain.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Daniel

    I think it doesnt really matter what you say when youre in pain, i think its more or less the act of breathing sharply and exhaling rather quickly that reduces the pain.. they should have taken the study further by having the subjects say non-swear words as well as having a trial where they just breath more heavily and sharply..

    July 13, 2009 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Chris Phillips

    This is a little off subject, but I would like to use this opportunity to tell everyone who knarks to the store manager about someone swearing in a store to F* off.

    If you've never heard a swear word and it HURT you SO bad that you feel you have to knark, then never, ever leave your home. Ever! And get over yourselves. You're not GOD or any diciples. And unless you've lived in a cave your entire life, you have heard a swear word, so quit ACTING like it is so DAMN offensive. YOU are offensive to me, but I don't go around knarking on you. Again, F* off.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Chris Phillips

    Chris – you must be GOD.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Mike

    I live in Chicago, and they don't exaggerate when they say how horrible the winters are. Whenever I have to walk the 5 blocks to the bus stop and the wind chill is below zero and smacking my face. I swear constantly and that somehow gets me through.

    I never thought that there was a relationship between them.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. A J

    After 20 years in the Navy I became a linguist in four letter words. The difference in swearing then and swearing now is the fact that in the Navy four letter words were used to add emphasis not vulgarity so the query is, what statement would result in a quicker response; get the f__king job done now or get the job done now.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Robert

    will you a%%holes who say its yelling a word, not the word that matters read the whole thing. He used a word describing part of a table as a control. it's not the act of saying the word.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Chris Phillips

    Hey, Double D....

    In both groups that were saying the same thing over and over.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Ben

    Yeah, well F*** you Paula.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Bill

    There's a quote about swearing that is attributed to the philosopher Rene Descartes which goes "Civilization began the first time someone threw a word at someone instead of a rock."

    July 13, 2009 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Alison

    I can understand a few contexts in which swearing is understandable (child labor especially! even though I didn't), but my problem is when someone uses swear words as part of a normal conversation. I mean, is it really necessary? Especially those folks who feel the need to interject the ever-favorite "F" at every possible chance. Please don't assume that the rest of the world is comfortable hearing those words, and if nothing else, watch your language when there are children around.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Ben Phoenix, AZ

    This is interesting. I am not a saint. Generally speaking though I rarely use foul language however...over the last three years I have progressively became restricted physically due to a condition that is creating pain throughout my body. I never know what I will wake up to or that I will even be able to sleep or if I am having a half decent day when I will be hit with an episode of attacks. Attacks that cause severe pain to my neck, legs, arms, shoulders, hands, back, migraines and severe memory loss is also mixed in which demands that I carry a digital voice recorder to remind me of trivial daily matters. In recent months my neurologist finally widened their scope after tremors were being noticed but months before I began to exert out of the blue a change almost out of character for me and that was when the pain began I would become more verbal using more harsh language (not directed at anyone) just words said out loud. I have refused narcotic pain meds. my memory loss is bad enough without the fog of dope. But those around me feared that my use of foul language was a negative sign and seeing this report today may be one less thing for me to hindered with knowing that it actually may help to relieve the mounting stress and emotions that the body stores in trying to cope with pain while at the same time I try to be congenial and considerate toward others.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. gpco

    Well put TM, I f***ing agree with you abso-f***ing-utely 100%. Too f***ing many swear words is just f***ing boorish as f***.
    I don't f***ing know about you people, but I sure as f***ing hell know that I have heard waaaaay f***ing too many f***ers who use the F-word as every other f***ing word for no f***ing good reason. Those f***ers are just f***ing annoying. You f***ing know what the f*** I'm f***ing talking about. Using f***ing swear words are f***ing okay as f***ing long as you only f***ing use them every once in a f***ing while. For f***ing pain relief, hell f***ing yeah!!! Just don't f***ing over-f***ing do it, because when you get to the f***ing point that you can't f***ing make a f***ing sentence without using the f***ing F-word, then nobody wants to f***ing listen to you any f***ing more. Then it's about as f***ing bad as those f***ers who USE CAPITAL LETTERS FOR NO F***ING GOOD REASON, or those f***ers who use too many f***ing exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. smb

    We all have a natural propensity to heal, and we all have a natural propensity to swear when hurt. Makes all the sense in the world – thanks for the research!!!

    July 13, 2009 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.