Page last updated at 09:13 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 10:13 UK

Swearing 'helps to reduce pain'

Gordon Ramsay
TV chef Gordon Ramsay is notorious for his swearing

Uttering expletives when you hurt yourself is a sensible policy, according to scientists who have shown swearing can help reduce pain.

A study by Keele University researchers found volunteers who cursed at will could endure pain nearly 50% longer than civil-tongued peers.

They believe swearing helps us downplay being hurt in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo.

The work by Dr Richard Stephens' team appears in the journal NeuroReport.

Dr Stephens, from Keele's school of psychology, came up with the idea for the study after swearing when he accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer as he built a garden shed.

If they want to use this pain-lessening effect to their advantage they need to do less casual swearing
Researcher Dr Richard Stephens

He recruited 64 volunteers to take part and each individual was asked to submerge their hand in a tub of freezing water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice.

They were then asked to repeat the experiment, this time using a more commonplace word that they would use to describe a table.

Despite their initial expectations, the researchers found that the volunteers were able to keep their hands plunged in the ice water for a longer period of time when repeating the swear word.

Natural response

On average, the students could tolerate the pain for nearly two minutes when swearing compared with only one minute and 15 seconds when they refrained from using expletives.


While it is not clear how or why this link exists, the team believes that the pain-lessening effect occurs because swearing triggers our natural 'fight-or-flight' response.

They suggest that the accelerated heart rates of the volunteers repeating the swear word may indicate an increase in aggression, in a classic fight-or-flight response of downplaying a weakness or threat in order to deal with it.

Dr Stephens said the findings might also explain why the centuries-old practice of cursing developed and still persists today.

But he cautioned: "If they want to use this pain-lessening effect to their advantage they need to do less casual swearing.

"Swearing is emotional language but if you overuse it, it loses its emotional attachment."

Rohan Byrt of the Casual Swearing Appreciation Society said he thought the study was the first time swearing's benefits had been proved.

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