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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?


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About this blog

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.