A new UK study found that swearing appeared to lessen the effects of pain, perhaps because it invokes a similar response as that which occurs in fight or flight when it breaks the link between fear of pain and the perception of pain, concluded the researchers.

The study was the work of psychologists Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston at Keele University in Staffordshire, and was recently published in the journal NeuroReport.

Although swearing is a common response to pain, whether it actually alters our experience of it is somewhat of a mystery.

According to a Reuters news agency report, Stephens said:

“Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon.”

“Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists,” he added.

Stephens said it appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language tends to arise in the left cerebral hemisphere.

For this study, the researchers investigated the extent to which swearing altered the ability of 64 volunteers to withstand immersing their hand in water (cold-pressor pain tolerance). They also measured pain perception and heart rate.

The researchers asked the volunteers to repeat a swear word while they immersed their hand in water. And then they asked them do the experiment again, except this time they repeated a neutral word that described a table.

Stephens and colleagues also examined sex differences, the role of pain catastrophizing, fear of pain and trait anxiety.

They found that compared with not swearing, swearing increased pain tolerance and heart rate, and decreased perception of pain.

However, “swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise,” they wrote.

They concluded that:

“The observed pain-lessening (hypoalgesic) effect may occur because swearing induces a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception.”

Stephens told the press that while they did not establish the link with fight or flight, they think perhaps swearing increases aggression.

“What is clear is that swearing triggers not only an emotional response, but a physical one too”, he added, explaining that perhaps this is why the practice of swearing has survived for centuries.

“Swearing as a response to pain.”
Stephens, Richard; Atkins, John; Kingston, Andrew.
NeuroReport, post author corrections, 24 June 2009.
doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1

Additional sources: Reuters.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD