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Medicine Science

Swearing Provides Pain Relief, Say Scientists 230

Posted by Soulskill
from the take-two-$#&!@-and-call-me-in-the-%!#@!$& dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Scientific American reports that although cursing is notoriously decried in the public debate, scientists have discovered that swearing may serve an important function in relieving pain. 'Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it,' says Richard Stephens of Keele University in England. A study measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the chilly exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer. How swearing achieves its physical effects is unclear, but the researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved. Earlier studies have shown that unlike normal language, which relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives hinge on evolutionarily ancient structures buried deep inside the right half like the amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons that can trigger a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain."
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Swearing Provides Pain Relief, Say Scientists

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  • by Meshach (578918) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @11:40AM (#28667589)

    I call bullshit...

    Yes, yes, it does sound like a steaming pile. But reading the article they compared people yelling profanities with other people "chanting neutral words". Both subjects had their hands immersed in cold water. It sounds like have an outlet to relieve stress has a lot more to do with the outcome then whatever they said.

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @11:48AM (#28667661)
    Swearing out loud in front of other people can carry some baggage and consequence. It's risky social behavior. Any risk taking can generate some adrenaline. The adrenaline makes it easier to tolerate the pain.

    It's like whenever I hear the phrase "no new taxes on anyone making under $250k." I just curse loudly enough to make my dogs leave the room, and I feel 1% better.
  • Aphasia (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Verteiron (224042) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @12:03PM (#28667779) Homepage

    I've heard of people who are left unable to speak (due to a stroke or other brain trauma) still being able to curse and swear like sailors. This does seem to indicate that swearing is linked to something more than just the speech center.

  • I don't see how you can define normal language outside of the individual.

    Nice try, but the individual's not an island. He or she might very well be comfortable with saltier language than most, but still surrounded by (and very much aware of) a society that generally thinks otherwise, thus the language still has 'power'.
  • Pain vocalization (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AlpineR (32307) <> on Sunday July 12, 2009 @12:10PM (#28667839) Homepage

    How do you explain swearing to yourself? I spent many nights during the past month pacing around my apartment with worsening cancer pain. Sometimes it got bad enough to elicit yelps and curses. There was nobody else around to give me an adrenaline rush from risky social behavior. It hurt, I swore, I felt a little better.

    I also discovered that singing to myself helps with tolerating pain. I was laid out still on a hard radiation table for an hour. The first ten minutes were easy but the pain got worse and worse as I stayed in that one position. Since I couldn't move, I tried moaning to myself - which helped a little. On the third session I tried humming and singing along with my iPod, and found that was even more effective at helping me endure the pain to get the treatment.

  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @12:28PM (#28667929) Homepage Journal

    These effects of making foul expletives show why it's more properly called "cursing" than "swearing". Cursing is a verbal counterattack on the source of the pain, which is more like the practice of placing a curse on an enemy than the practice of making a holy vow - because the vow here is profane. I expect researchers will find that cursing puts the curser in an attack state that suppresses the experience of pain. I also expect we'll find that cursing releases physical and mental stress, relaxing physical and mental parts of us so they can return to normal sensation, not the disarray that is the basis of our feeling pain to begin with.

    On the US East Coast, we call it "cursing". I know on the West Coast they call it "swearing", and evidently do in the UK. The East Coast is known for its advanced research, typically in the streets, in coping with pain of all sorts, especially by talking. Maybe once they get the right names on these effects, they'll be able to use our informal groundwork to curse better, or perhaps an upgrade to swear off cursing entirely, just as bandaids have replaced blisters.

  • Hm... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by that IT girl (864406) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @12:34PM (#28667971) Journal
    They didn't mention it in the study, but I have a suspicion that the volume of the word also helps. Because it seems to hurt much more when it's dark and you are trying not to wake anybody up when you stub your toe and furiously whisper "fuck fuck fuckitty fuck!" to yourself (or maybe only I do that?) However, even if you are all alone (removing the "ooh I said a dirty word in public" adrenaline rush people claim) and you yell it at the top of your lungs, it really does seem to help. :D
  • Coprolalia (Score:3, Interesting)

    by uassholes (1179143) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @12:48PM (#28668079)

    It's a shame that no mention was made in TFA to coprolalia ("the spontaneous utterance of socially objectionable or taboo words or phrases": []), which is one of the symptoms of Tourette syndrome (

    It seems to me that there must be some deep psychological need for letting rip with a few choice words and phrases.

  • by drinkypoo (153816) <> on Sunday July 12, 2009 @12:54PM (#28668133) Homepage Journal

    Much of the point of the article is that in fact you are NOT thinking of it as swearing... it's not thinking in the same way that choosing your words and speaking is, because it comes from a different part of the brain. One of that part's functions (or side effects) seems to be the imperative to cuss and swear. Sometimes I make incoherent noises instead of actually swearing, I wonder if they come from the same part of the brain? (You know, the Tazmanian Devil razzle frazzle dialect...)

  • Re:Well #@%$ me. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @01:16PM (#28668239) Journal
    Not to worry, my rudimentary knowledge of vulgar German provides an offsite disaster recovery option, should my stock of English be exhausted.

    In all seriousness, though, studies have demonstrated all kinds of interesting things about bilingual brains(particularly people who were raised bilingual, rather than ones who picked up a second language by study later in life), it'd be interesting to know if all curses lose efficacy at the same rate through overuse, if the loss is word-by-word, if the loss is concept-by-concept(e.g. excretory curses, sexual curses, blasphemy, etc.), or whether crossing language boundaries reduces the loss of efficacy.
  • Re:Well #@%$ me. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bsDaemon (87307) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @01:21PM (#28668267)
    I smell a doctoral thesis...
  • Re:Hm... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by inwo42 (1245506) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:31PM (#28668675)
    Would this be similar to the martial art kiai ( [])? When the practitioner strikes (or takes a blow) the "kiai" helps. I'm not sure if cursing would be a similar use of energy, but I know that "shit" and "fuck" seem to have much more power than "shoot" or "frick". Perhaps the breath and energy required to project the words are similar to that of the "kiai".
  • Re:Aphasia (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Reziac (43301) * on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:34PM (#28668701) Homepage Journal

    My sister has an opposite reaction. When she encounters something swearworthy (such as hammering her thumb), she puffs up like she's about to explode, and can't get a word out. I'll come up and say "Shit fuck damn hell sonuvabitch" and it's like someone let the air out of my sister -- and she feels better even tho she didn't do the swearing!!

    So... apparently swearing via proxy also works.

  • by WeirdJohn (1170585) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:40PM (#28668735)

    I beg to differ on your first point. I have CRPS, and as a result know a bit about physical pain. Over the years I have been on prescription Tramadol, Morphine, Oxycontin, Fentanyl, Gabapentin, Lyrica and Ketamine. I also get periodic blocks, which are injections of Lignocaine to ganglia. And thats not counting injections of Phenol to destroy nerves, Botox and steroids.

    Only the anaesthetics actually stop pain (Ketamine and Lignocaine), and have other sides effects. Nerve destruction doesnt last. The AEDs reduce pain by reducing the firing of every nerve in the body, including the CNS, so there are no orgasms and your memory suffers.

    Narcotics don't actually stop or reduce the pain. What they do is you don't have to care about it any more. And they have their own side effects, not the least being that you no longer care about the things you should care about. Even if smacked off my gourd on Fentanyl (which is a horrible drug), if I focus on my pain it's still there, but I just don't care about it. Narcotics reduce or eliminate the affect, not the effect.

    Pain is not "easily" overcome chemically. There is a price to be paid. Mind tricks only work to a partial extent, and you can't keep your attention fixed on something else all the time without tripping over things and having accidents.

    I find it interesting that swearing is shown to be efficacious, as it shows that the emotional release works. I have to wonder if swearing releases encephalins.

  • by gyrogeerloose (849181) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:41PM (#28668737) Journal

    I don't have a lot of delays, but my graphics card clocks up to full speed when scrolling Slashdot in Firefox, and that's saying something

    Yeah--Slashdot is the only text-based Web site that makes the fans on my laptop run fast enough to be audible. Usually the only online activity that does that is watching long videos on YouTube.

  • by noidentity (188756) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:56PM (#28668853)
    So "swearing provides more pain tolerance than repeating a neutral chant". How about swearing versus yelling "oh wow ow!" or just general non-verbal screaming? If they have trouble finding participants, they can just grab a few politicians and/or lawyers against their will...
  • Re:Pain vocalization (Score:3, Interesting)

    by weicco (645927) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @03:11PM (#28668969)

    I once had a nasty inflammation in my guts after a caecum surgery. The doctor managed to burst it when it was still inside. I was released from the hospital next morning and the stomach pain started some hours after. And it hurt like hell! I've never felt anything like that. But what I discovered was that joking helps. When I got other people to laugh I (almost) forgot my stomach pain.

    And then the sweet, sweet painkillers when I finally got back to the hospital (had to drive 10 km there, ambulance refused to come).

  • by CarpetShark (865376) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @03:37PM (#28669149)

    they compared people yelling profanities with other people "chanting neutral words".

    Which is entirely the wrong thing to be comparing with. Everyone has heard people say that swearing makes them feel better, and anyone with some insight into their own minds can tell that's probably true, without a study.

    What they SHOULD be comparing with is other things that people say make them feel better -- meditation, and a massage, for instance. If they're all equally effective, then you can say that it's all in the mind, and that there's nothing special about swearing, except that we... well, feel better.

    The question is... WHY do we feel better? My bet is that it's got nothing to do with swearing, and much more to do with subjects building up tension through stupid thought processes and then finally releasing them whatever way they know how.

  • Re:Aphasia (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tverbeek (457094) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @04:33PM (#28669509) Homepage
    That's exactly what happened with my boyfriend. He'd had an aneurysm bleed followed by surgery and an ischemic stroke (from his circulatory system overreacting to the bleed). In the days immediately afterword, he couldn't produce single words, even simple nouns or his own name. But when they pulled out his nasogastric tube, he let out a string of anglo saxon that briefly brought a smile to my face. Definitely not a standard linguistic function. Incidentally, over the following week as his ability to speak returned, but he still couldn't put together a sentence to save his life, he could sing along with familiar songs just fine (music being a function of the right side of the brain, not the left side that had suffered most of the trauma).
  • Not only that... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by v(*_*)vvvv (233078) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @05:31PM (#28670011)

    Swearing can transfer pain. From the person in pain, to the person being sweared at.

    On a more serious note, I believe screaming and crying are also effective, which are both natural reactions to pain. In severe cases, the sufferer can simply pass out, which might suggest the body knows more about pain tolerance than we do.

    It is also said that the anticipation of pain can be just as horrific or worse psychologically than pain itself. Hence torture looses its effectiveness as the unpredictable subsides and the ends appears nearer.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 13, 2009 @12:41AM (#28672629)

    I read some time ago that they use a script to determine if you are spamming the site, and does some kind of check on your IP that is client-based.

    What I hate is that for the past year, the page-loading script has been getting slower and slower on all my OS's and boxes. The single core machine using firefox 2 and 3 would lock up for about 5 to 10 seconds per tab. K-meleon has reached a sweet point. Geez, who could have thought back when we bought the box in 2003 that web-browsing @ 1.9GHZ would be slow? It's just JS and flash Ads... Flash videos and flash versions have gotten more CPU-bound with time. Pushing to full-screen will give you an idea of whether the computer is acceptable.

    The laptop does run hot on flash sites for me at 1.8GHZ dual core, but my fans only whir on multitab web sessions with flash ads or vids.

    Anyway, I really do hate how they pulled a fast one this year and made JS start this annoying focus switching thing when you click on stories. My habit of highlighting paragraphs as a substitute for a scrollwheel on this laptop is really giving me a hard time. Instead of selecting text, the story jumps to some random position on my screen and the page does this weird border change. Oh, and moving around this way steals prescious seconds. The only worry-free way of reading this is with the old layout or on lynx. Wish I could have used some more cuss words... This is a pain.

    Hmmm, there's bugs there like having to selectAll+cut and re-reply to posts. The /. post reference number counter times out and KILLS your prospective session if you take more than exactly 5 minutes typing a post. I better try that or I'll lose my post without even the option to preview it.

  • by Shadow of Eternity (795165) on Monday July 13, 2009 @09:11AM (#28675071)

    It's not that, if you fill the bowl with loosely packed crushed ice and then pour water into it you'll get a solid block of ice. Doing it with really salty water lowers the freezing point enough that you can at least get your hand in.

    If you're REALLY serious about trying to torture yourself with a bowl of something cold just use alcohol instead.

How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else. -- R. Buckminster Fuller