A Cheap Pain Reliever

In a 2009 experiment, Keele University researchers Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston asked two groups of subjects to hold their hands in ice water. One group was asked to swear while they did so, and the other was asked to say neutral words. The swearers were able to hold their hands in the water twice as long, and these subjects reported feeling less pain.

No one’s quite sure why this works — perhaps swearing activates the amygdala, which leads to a release of adrenaline, producing natural pain relief. Stephens said, “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”

Interestingly, Stephens later found that people who reported swearing every day reported a lesser pain-deadening effect than those who swore less often. Perhaps people who seldom swear place a higher emotional value on these words, which triggers a stronger chemical response.

“Swearing is a very emotive form of language and our findings suggest that over-use of swear words can water down their emotional effect,” Stephens said. “Used in moderation, swearing can be an effective and readily available short-term pain reliever if, for example, you are in a situation where there is no access to medical care or painkillers. However, if you’re used to swearing all the time, our research suggests you won’t get the same effect.”