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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. Natasha

    Swearing can be helpful when used seldomly, but I find it is unnecessary and distasteful when I see kids and adults used it constantly.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. F-Bomber

    I just sent this article to my wife 🙂

    July 13, 2009 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. don'tgetit

    Just another excuse for bad behavior...!!! What’s next? Punching someone?

    July 13, 2009 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Robert

    I am no scientist but I can definitely see how swearing can have a positive effect in such a negative moment. I seem to yell the loudest or be able to let out the most emotion with the naughtiest of words, something about yelling F********K!!!!! at the top of my lungs seems to be much easier than "I AMM IN SOOO MUCHHH PAIN!!!"....could it simply be the ease of which saying these words because of they are one syllable?

    July 13, 2009 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Meena Singhal

    I believe that swearing is inappropriate and distasteful. One of the problems with society today is that the lines that one existed keep getting greyer and thinner. I could hurt my toe and shout out "Holy Shrimp" and it would have the same effect as "sh *@" Shouting out to express that pain is release we know that releasing emotions is better than harboring emotions. Swearing is offensive – let's not use scientific studies to rationalize unacceptable behavior.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. chris

    It is BECAUSE its taboo that it works.Think about it. Theres nothing magical about a swear word.
    Interesting s#$t, huh?

    July 13, 2009 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Richie

    If we remove the social taboo, we'd likely remove any therapeutic benefit.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Robert Lamarche

    French is my native tongue, though I have now been living in California for almost 30 years. Yes, I stub my toes, bumb my bad knee and whack my thumb on occasion, and quickly revert to my "best" juicy French for pain-relieving swearing.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. mort

    @karen July 13th, 2009 8:32 am ET
    Swearing will send you to hell. DO NOT SWEAR TO RELIEVE PAIN NOW, THAT YOU WILL PAY FOR LATER!

    what are you, a f***ing idiot?!

    LOL

    July 13, 2009 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jason

    I think this is a very interesting study. I thiks its possible that it could decrease pain through either the simple expression of pain or your own belief in the fact that swearing when something hurts will help. I do however disagree with people who think that swearing is what makes us an unstable country or sinners in the eyes of their god. That is completely ridiculous and shows just how little you know. Every language in the world since language was first created probably has some words that are considered swear words, but a word only has as much power as you give it. In the end it is just a word and if you don't like it then don't use it, but don't insult people who do use them like they are the real problem. Thats as ignorant as the argument that offensive material shouldn't be shown on tv because kids can see it when there are tons of ways to prevent it from happening, its your responsibility to teach your kids a better way whether it be language, tv or music that you find offensive. Grow up people we are all adults here and have earned the right to say s**t or f**k or whatever "bad" words we choose because that would be freedom of speech folks and this is still America here. I do hope that someday people will realize that through different circumstances any of the words you know and love could have ended up being a swear word depending on who first came up with it and why. WORDS ARE JUST WORDS, NOTHING MORE AND NOTHING LESS!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kara

    Love this article and it's not the first I have read regarding the subject on how it is helpful to your well-being! I have a FRUSTRATING job and work from home and boy it does help to vent the "F" word and many others to myself once I hang up the phone or read a stupid email from my "superiors" who talk out their A$$ daily!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. chris

    Oh, and other chris? Dont exaggerate.

    Considering how large and diverse we are:

    WE ARE A VERY STABLE SOCIETY.

    You worry waaay too much..

    Democracy is the best!!

    God bless america!!

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

    Whatever happened to a really loud OUCH. That seemed to work when I was a kid. Then as that began to not work very well, I went to SH!!, After that stopped working it has gone further up the scale to SOB and finally FU– But, I don't hit myself much anymore.
    Tom

    July 13, 2009 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. marie

    ah the difference is cursing, swearing, bad language. if we say GD or d- it, then we are actually trying to curse or hv God curse something, however to say sh–,or p-ss, or words of the like we are just using bad language its not attempting to curse something. we tend to lump all negative words into the catagory of profanity or cussing or swearing.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Susan Kirby

    it may increase the swearers pain threshold but how does it affect those around him or her. does it increase their blood pressure, scare them, decrease their sensitivity to scare tactics?

    July 13, 2009 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Rebecca

    Swearing definitely releases tension - I save up all those swear words for when I'm mad or in pain. Thanks for the post!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Eric

    i could have told them that...sh-t..!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Suze

    A couple of weeks ago, I fell off a staircase with an open side and on top of a heavy stationary bike. I live in a duplex with a thin wall between the two sides, the neighbors having an infant, and am still embarrassed by the long loud string of sailor talk that came out of my usually polite mouth. If it helped the pain at all, I hate to think what I would have endured if I had left it to a few golly-goshes and oh-darns.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Chris Phillips

    Karen, you must be GOD too.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Lauren R. Wheeling, WV

    I'm telling ya, cussin' is why mankind developed vocal cords. Could you imagine a mastadon hunt without swear words?

    July 13, 2009 at 11:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Eve L One

    My loved one has gone through a major life altering health diagnosis. She went from being very active, a previous ballet and tap dancer, to having a spinal condition that has her now relying on the use of a wheelchair. She was once very mild mannered, to the point that some would have called her meek. But on the days that she is in great pain, we both noticed long ago, her foul language use has greatly increased. I don't know that it relieves any pain, but it expresses how much more pain that she is in.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Pete

    OMFGWTF! Swearing its the new language of all us generation x'ers! We swear like there is no tomorrow!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Candice

    I think this blog is great. I taught headstart for a year and it was not the best job for me. I surprisingly would go all day without saying one curse word but, as soon as I got out of school the f-bomb was being dropped all day long. It somehow made me feel better after being stressed all day. So, I don't think it just goes for pain. I think it is a way to relieve feelings of any sort.

    Funny though, just this morning I was telling a guy friend that he was cursing too much and then I stumbled upon this...haha...I told him about it and he said "told you I was right". I guess he was. lol

    July 13, 2009 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Kat

    I have always known that cussing helps me relieve my stress! Its nothing like throwing a couple of f bombs and the s d and a words around when I am angry...it helps me blow off steam...now I do not advocate running around yelling and cussin at folks but there are sum situations in which the cuss words drives home ur seriousness...but I only allow myself to cuss when I am extremely angry tho....

    July 13, 2009 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. wally

    this is a bunch of crock...
    words only express how you feel deep inside [from the heart]

    July 13, 2009 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Angela

    The problem with this study is they use the same hand. It is obviously going to be more sensitive the second time around in an ice bath, thus less likely to be able to sustain a long time submerged.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Janet Bogardus LCCE CD(DONA)

    As a Lamaze childbirth educator and birth doula I am always looking for ways to help women diminish the perception of pain in labor. I think being able to give voice to the pain is very beneficial. The study seems to be only done with swearing but I know women who have sang their way through childbirth, given low deep moans to the pain of the contractions, chanted, preyed and yes swear. I think words and sound in general can be very very beneficial if that's the type of person you are. Some people do just fine being quiet and internal and use their breath to let go of the pain.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Padraig

    When I was growing up (and even today in my early fifties), my father was (and still is) sanctimonious about using "dirty words". He even told the dean of discipline at the Catholic (naturally) high school I attended to let him know if I was using words like that (never mind that a number of the faculty, including one priest, were notorious for torrents of four-letter-words even while teaching class). I thought then and still think today that he is full of sh– on that subject. My mother still does her mellodramatic gasp when she hears a word like 'bastard' on the TV. Amazing to me that at 86, they still haven't grown the f- up.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Danno

    When referring to the toe; Isn't baby pinky a little redundant?

    July 13, 2009 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Proper English

    It's you are educated. Or you're not your.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Jim

    I'm going to swear my f____g A$$ off now!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Zanna

    I swore like a sailor when I dislocated my kneecap. It helps lessen the pain and keeps panic from taking over ("how the f-ing h*ll am I going to get this son*****tchin' thing back in the socket?!").

    Re: Chris, Karen and others with issues about language: When you dislocate and put back your own kneecap (or something equally painful) I'd love to know how inventive you get with language. F – bombs away!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Loveit

    I love, love this study. I swear all the time at work. My belief is that it makes the emotional pain less too!!!! And increases my performance. I will be tagging this article for future reference!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Aaron

    This article shows how poorly science is done sometimes. The entire study needs many groups of individuals and the ordering of each alowance randomized. Different outcomes might be described in different ways. Did they allow for facial expresions or did they tell them to try and keep them flat? is silence better, is yelling w/o words, or swearing, describing, other acceptable words in language, swearing, facial expresions, ... there are many variables not adressed that can be causation. Corolation does Not equal causation. There is a corolation of individuals who swore and how long they could hold their hand in the water, this doesn't mean the swearing helps.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. jim j

    Venting helps reduce pain would not draw near the interest as swearing helps reduce pain. Isn't it interesting the things we do to compromise ourselves.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Katherine

    Yay. Vindication!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Polly Ledvina

    How about a study on the stress level of everyone that has to listen to the swearing? I resent that my blood pressure must go up a little every time my husband stubs his toe or knocks something over.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. John

    Personally, I've never understood the big deal about swearing, and I curse like a trucker when I stub my toe, they are just words that someone decided was bad, there is nothing intrinsically bad about them

    that said I don't curse nearly as much as some and reserve it for when I'm home or with friends who I know won't be offended.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Mark

    This story is so f***ing obvious...

    July 13, 2009 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. sharon

    As I once told my mother....after an experience going down to the subway in New York...sometimes there is no better way!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. RMC

    I *bleep*-ing HATE "prissy language nazis", personally. Shut UP with your prissy pecksniffian attitudes that blowing off a little steam by cussing should be regarded as morally on par with raping your grandmother. And those who try to say if you cuss you don't have an adequate vocabulary to express yourself? Go dive in cess, you vacuous idiots. When YOU can prove you knew how to spell antidisestablishmentarianism at the age of 7, or use the words I typically use in an everyday conversation, THEN you can opine about my presence or lack of adequate vocabulary - not before. Until then, if you think it your place to harass me for cussing a little when I'm angry? GO *BLEEP* yourself. Clear enough for you? You don't control me and you never will. We clear yet???

    July 13, 2009 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. sdh

    Well, there's swearing and there's SWEARING. When I stub a toe and I'm by myself, I could make a sailor blush. But when my 4-yr old grandson is around, I can get very creative in my language and "GOD...bless america and all the ships at sea" can be just as therapeutic – not to mention entertaining for him 🙂
    My guess is that it's not so much the actual words you use, but the energy and commitment to them which helps.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Rosemary Butt

    to swearing should be taking the name of god in vain, I try to not do that, but the f word is my favorite, I know I say it sometimes and have offended some people, such is life. I am 73 and have used naughty words for at least 50 years and do not apologize for doing it. I not only use those words when injured or in pain, but they are in my everyday vocabulary, but I try to use them only around persons who do the same thing.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Ms. Right

    Cranky Uterus, I want to curse just hearing your story and I rarely curse. I believe cursing when that pain initially hits you is an automatic, therapeutic God given reflex. After a while the cursing is quieted because the pain is stopping, you have become better able to cope with it, or trying to cope by not focusing on the pain so much. However cursing for the initial pains is definitely a good release.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. ernie

    it didn't help – although I cussed loud and long yesterday when I hit my finger with a da#@ hammer

    July 13, 2009 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Mary

    chris, swear words are only considered "immoral" because society makes them to be "bad". In the end, swear words are just words, and making them into something that is evil is pointless–forbidden fruit, anyone?

    July 13, 2009 at 11:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Amy

    As a general rule, I don't swear. But the first time I ever used a wax strip on my legs, all I can say is that I am SO GLAD my children weren't home! I didn't know I even knew words like that!! Holy cow!

    July 13, 2009 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Jolly Roger

    Hey, Chris. Church got out an hour ago. How bout you take off the purple stole and go do something un-preachy there, Captain Righteous! Cheesus F'ing Rice!! Bla, bla, bla..."This is an example how unstable we are as a society, waah, waah, waah..."

    YAAAAAAWN!! Oh, I'll bet you're just tons of fun at a party. Maybe you should put down the cross for a while. No one's asking you to carry it, Mr. Moral Hero (and you look silly trying). Besides Hayzoos already played that one out. Come up with your own gig. Btw, man, check out Karen. She's a big old doom and gloom wingnut too. Maybe you guys should get a room, eh? I'm sure the Lhawd won't mind...

    See ya, buncha GD Effing MEffers

    July 13, 2009 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Shel

    Sorry Mom??? Ha! I learned this one from my mother...

    Well F*** Me!

    If needed, I can use the placebo effect of muttering "F M, F M!"

    July 13, 2009 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Jaclin

    I think the most interesting thing about this study is that scientists actually got paid to do it. Marginally interesting info.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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