Peggy Loper doesn’t know why, but she’s sure that the rapid hissed repetition of her favorite expletive somehow dulls the pain when she’s hammered her thumb rather than the nail she’d aimed for.
“Generally I start swearing even before the pain actually registers,” says the 48-year-old student from Salem, N.J. “And usually, the ouch-ouch dance, where I’m hopping from foot to foot, goes along with it. People have told me that I should try deep breathing, but I personally prefer to swear.” The F-bomb is her curse word of choice; that hard consonant at the end is particularly satisfying, she explains.
As it turns out, Loper may be right. British scientists have shown that swear words can have a powerful pain-killing effect, according to a new study published in the journal NeuroReport.
The researchers originally thought that swearing would make pain worse by focusing a person’s attention on the injury and its implications. To prove their hypothesis, they set up an experiment with 67 college students.
The students were asked to plunge their hands into frigid 41-degree Fahrenheit water for as long as they could stand the pain. Half were told to repeat their favorite curse word while their hands were submerged. The other half were asked to repeat a neutral word describing a table, such as solid or brown, while keeping their hands under water. Then the whole experiment was repeated with the two groups switching types of word. (Favorite swear words were, as you might guess, the ones starting with "F" and "S." But since the subjects were British, the researchers also got an earful of "bollocks.")
To the researchers’ surprise, the cursing group not only reported lower levels of pain, but also were able to keep their hands in the icy water longer. The men in the study, for example, were able to keep their hands in the water for an average of 190 seconds while swearing, but for only 140 seconds when uttering a neutral word.
The difference was even more pronounced in women. While men’s pain scores dropped by a point when they cussed, the women’s dropped by almost two full points.
The researchers aren’t sure why that might be, but the study’s lead author, Richard Stephens, has a theory. Women tend to swear less and that may make the words more powerful for them, says Stephens, a researcher in the school of psychology at Keele University in England.
Dr. Doris Cope, a pain researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, says the study findings make a lot of sense.
How much pain you feel when you stub your toe or hit your thumb with a hammer is a result both of the signals sent by the nerves in your body and of your mind’s interpretation of those signals, she explains.
And your mind can moderate those feelings of pain, says Cope, director of the university’s pain medicine program. The emotions let loose when you curse may somehow inhibit the pain response, because your brain gets distracted by the anger, she says.
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Or it may simply be that cursing gives you a sense of control, Cope suggests. “You don’t feel the same level of helplessness. Studies have shown that when you give patients control over their own analgesia, they use less than when they have to depend on someone else to get pain relief.”
As for why cursing works better for women, Cope says: “That may be because cursing is a more emotionally laden activity for them,” she adds. “It might be interesting to take a population that swears as a matter of course — prisoners, say — and compare them to a group, such as nuns, who never swear.”
In the meantime, the study may just give the rest of us permission to just let go and explode with our favorite curse word when we bump our shins on the coffee table.
That would be fine by Stephens, “so long as there are no children around to hear you.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.
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