Although a common pain response, whether swearing alters individuals' experience of pain has not been investigated. This study investigated whether swearing affects cold-pressor pain tolerance (the ability to withstand immersing the hand in icy water), pain perception and heart rate. In a repeated measures design, pain outcomes were assessed in participants asked to repeat a swear word versus a neutral word. In addition, sex differences and the roles of pain catastrophising, fear of pain and trait anxiety were explored. Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. However, swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise. 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.Reported in local Staffordshire's newspaper The Sentinel
Foul-mouthed outbursts 'can lessen pain'Of course, there is a minority, who will just say "ouch". Their pain threshold is probably not as high.Sunday, July 12, 2009, 00:01
Researchers at the university's School of Psychology have found that uttering a string of expletives can lessen the effect of pain, helping individuals endure painful situations for longer.
Dr Richard Stephens, who led the research, suggests that swearing may provoke a "fight or flight" response in people, with their heightened aggression helping them cope with the pain.
But whatever the reason for the study's results, they shed new light on to why some feel the need to turn the air blue when they hit their thumb with a hammer.
Dr Stephens said he first got the idea for the study after watching his wife give birth to their daughter.
He said: "There was a point in the labour where my wife was 'effing and jeffing' quite a lot. She was very apologetic afterwards, but the midwife told her not to worry, as that happened all the time.
"That got me thinking about how pain and swearing always seem to go together, and yet there had not been any research done in that area."
In the experiment, which Dr Stephens carried out with colleagues John Atkins and Andrew Kingston, 67 student volunteers were asked to submerge their hands in ice water for as long as they could.
In one set of tests they were told to repeat a swear word of their choice, while in another they had to repeat a more commonplace word which they would use to describe a table.
The results showed that in nearly all cases, the volunteers were able to cope with the cold water for longer while they were swearing.
On average men could last 191 seconds while swearing, compared to 147 seconds when not swearing, while in women the difference was 120 seconds compared to 83.
The researchers also found that the volunteers' heart rate increased while swearing, while their perception of pain fell.
Before conducting the tests, Dr Stephens had spoken to colleagues who suggested swearing might actually make pain worse, due to it being a "catastrophising" response, but it turned out the total opposite was true.
Dr Stephens added: "I wasn't really surprised, as the results seemed to confirm my own observations.
"Although the paper shows there is an effect, it doesn't offer much insight into why there is an effect, and so more research is needed.
"In our paper we suggest that swearing might induce a fight of flight response. When people are fearful of pain, their tolerance for pain actually increases. So swearing might be a way individuals induce that response themselves."
Dr Stephens believes the research could also shed light on to why sports coaches will often swear when attempting to motivate their players.
The paper states: "Everyday examples of aggressive swearing include the football manager who 'psychs-up' players with expletive-laden team talks, or the drill sergeant barking orders interspersed with profanities.
"Swearing in these contexts may serve to raise levels of aggression, downplaying feebleness in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo."
But swearing does not seem to work as a painkiller for everyone though.
The researchers found that with men who tend to catastrophise, or overreact in bad situations, it can have the opposite effect and make pain seem even worse.