Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Swearing — An Under-Appreciated “Analgesic”?

Ever wonder if shouting expletives upon stubbing a toe or smashing a finger actually eases the pain? Researchers believe that’s true, and think they know why.

Investigators at Keele University in the UK had 64 volunteers hold their hands in a tub of ice water [cold-pressor pain test] for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice; each then repeated the experiment but using a commonplace word they would use to describe a table. While swearing, subjects’ heart rates increased and they were able to tolerate the ice water for longer periods of time.

The researchers suggest that the accelerated heart rates in cussing volunteers may denote increased aggression in a classic fight-or-flight response, thus downplaying feebleness in favor of a more pain-tolerant stoicism. Apparently, swearing triggers both emotional and physical responses — it may nullify the link between fear of pain and pain perception, the researchers note in the journal NeuroReport.

Caveats: In the overall scheme of things, this was rather marginal research that garnered major media headlines. It was a small trial in 64 subjects who were all undergraduate students. It may tell us more about responses in a select group of college students than human nature overall. Also, there was no randomization or control group; each subject served as his/her own control in performing both sides of the experiment, which can bias outcomes.

Our conclusion… don’t try this at home!

Reference: Stephens R, Atkins J, Kingston A. Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport. 2009(Aug);20(12):1056-1060.