Cursing Kills Pain Redux
Apparently, analyzing the benefits of swear words appeals quite a bit to some researchers from Keele University in Great Britain,1 since they just came out with their second consecutive study on the subject. I wrote a few years ago about a study that shows that yelling swear words when experiencing pain can actually help the sensation of pain diminish. That study focused on how cursing benefits men versus women. Now the same Keele University team reports on how well the pain relief conferred by cursing works for seasoned profanity users versus those who rarely curse.
This time, scientists asked 71 subjects, aged 18 to 41, to fill out questionnaires detailing "how often" they swore -- apparently, this is a crucial refinement over the previous study. They also asked them to report what words they would say if they accidentally hit their thumb with a hammer and what words they'd use to describe a table.2 Then, subjects immersed their hands in a bucket of ice water. They were told to let out a string of swear words (featuring those words they'd use if a hammer hit the thumb) while keeping their hands in the water as long as they could stand it. After recovering, they put their hands back in the water and let loose a string of those words they listed to describe a table.
It turns out that the efficacy of swearing as a palliative depends a great deal on how much you swear in daily life -- with the bottom line being "less is more." Those subjects who don't normally indulge in foul language kept their hands in the water far longer when they cursed compared to when not cursing. In contrast, those subjects who use profanity frequently were four times less likely to get relief from uttering expletives. So much for websites devoted to "The All-Time Greatest Moments in Cinematic Swearing."
So once again, we have evidence that cursing is good for the body, even if it doesn't do much for the soul. In any event, it could add an interesting dimension to medicine if doctors start prescribing curse words to heal your pain the way they prescribe aspirin to cure your heart. First, the medical intake form would have to ask, "How often do you curse?" right next to "How often do you exercise?" so that the physician could figure out the likelihood that you've developed curse-resistance. Assuming that you're normally a light curser, you could get a prescription that reads: "Say 10 'gosh-darn-its' (or something to that effect) and call me in the morning."
All joking aside, Dr. Richard Stephens, the research director, doesn't see cursing as a prescriptive path. He says, "While I wouldn't advocate the prescription of swearing as part of a medicalized pain management strategy, our research suggests that we should be tolerant of people who swear while experiencing acute pain. Indeed, I occasionally receive letters from members of the public recounting episodes in which they, as adults, have been chastised for swearing during a painful episode. They feel that my research findings vindicate their actions."
As I've written before, while scientists can't say for sure why the curse-effect works, they think it has to do with the fight-or-flight response. When faced with danger, the hypothalamus triggers a physiological reaction that releases certain nerve cells and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, to help the body prepare for battle and ease possible pain. Cursing is an aggressive act that signals the body to release those pain-relieving chemicals.
At least, that's the scientific theory put forth by those involved, but a reader of England's The Telegraph, where a report on the study got published, had a totally different take.3 David Thomas says, "[It's also possible that] swearing may interfere with the use of common sense and delay the removal of one's hand from the painfully cold water. Spending one's energies swearing rather than acting intelligently is not laudable."
Mr. Thomas does have a point. Plus, those who see this report as a vindication of their foul tongues must acknowledge that the relief from cursing is short-lived. You get a bit of a break for the seconds following the onset of pain, but then the throbbing begins. On the other hand, it is good to know that profanity does play a useful role, since almost everybody does swear, according to Timothy Jay, who writes about cursing in Perspectives on Psychological Science.4 According to Jay's research, the average person swears about 0.3% to 0.7% of the time. (When I read a statistic like that, I just have to believe that some researchers simply have far too much time on their hands.) Jay extols cursing benefits such as emotional release and a safe alternative to punching people out. Plus, from the pure language point-of-view, he says, curse words sometimes offer emphasis that other words simply can't convey as well.
If you absolutely can't abide cussing and refuse to indulge, what can you do in the moments following injury to get some instant relief, short of grabbing the NSAIDS? Try popping arnica if you like homeopathy, or take some Rescue Remedy if you like flower remedies. Or, you can do a relaxation technique or an energy meridian healing on yourself before the pain intensifies. Or you can simply use a top-of-the-line herbal pain-relief oil. In fact, you can do it all, damn it, including peppering your language with the bad words of your choice.
1 Kraft, Sy. "Ease Your Pain: Curse But Don't Engage In Swear "Abuse." 20 April 2011. Medical News Today. 21 April 2011. < http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/223025.php>
2 Dahl, Melissa. "#@*! Swearing really is a powerful painkiller, study shows." The Body Odd on MSNBC. April 21, 2011. < http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/04/18/6489832-swearing-really-is-a-powerful-painkiller-study-shows>
3 "Swearing can help relieve pain, study claims." 19 April, 2011. The Telegraph. 21 April 2011. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/8458163/Swearing-can-help-relieve-pain-study-claims.html>
4 Grohol, John M PsyD. "Why Do We Swear?" World of Psychology. 21 April 2011. <http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/03/30/why-do-we-swear/>