Cursing can provide effective, short-term pain relief say researchers, but not if over-used: the effect is much greater for people who do not make a habit of it. Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland from the School of Psychology at the University of Keele in the UK, report findings that shed new light on the use of swearing as a response to pain in the 14 November online issue of The Journal of Pain.

The study finds similar results to another study that Stephens reported in 2009, where he showed people were able to withstand an ice-cold water challenge for a longer length of time if they repeatedly uttered swear-words than if they repeated a neutral word.

The difference with this latest study is that it takes into account people’s swearing habits.

The researchers found that people who admitted to using swear-words frequently every day (at a maxium rate of 60 per day), derived no greater benefit from swearing during the ice-water challenge than from uttering neutral words.

But people who normally did not swear a lot (just a few times a day), were able to endure the ice-cold water challenge for twice as long when they repeated swear-words than when they used the neutral words.

The researchers said one explanation is that swearing helps people withstand pain because of the emotional response it produces in the swearer. The emotion, eg aggression or anger, leads to what the researchers call “stress-induced analgesia”, a natural form of pain relief that results from the surge in adrenaline that accompanies the body’s natural “fight or flight” response to stress.

But people who curse a lot become “habituated” in that the emotional response becomes weaker with use, resulting in a weaker effect as pain relief.

Stephens, a senior psychology lecturer, told the media:

“Swearing is a very emotive form of language and our findings suggest that over-use of swear words can water down their emotional effect.”

Used in moderation, he explained, swearing can be a useful alternative pain-reliever in situations where you can’t easily access medical care or painkillers. But, if you are a constant curser, then this study suggests you are less likely to benefit.

Although the study offers strong evidence for the link between swearing and tolerance of pain, it does not clarify what the underlying mechanisms might be.

Normally language activates the cortex, the outer layer of the brain, but swearing or cursing appears to activate deeper levels, the ones more closely linked to emotions.

Stephens said we are just beginning to “scratch the surface” in our understanding of how swearing affects the emotions, and how its impact differs in different situations.

“In the context of pain, swearing appears to serve as a simple form of emotional self-management. Whether swearing has beneficial effects in other contexts is something we would like to explore in the future,” he added.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD