Increasing Pain Tolerance By Yelling Curse Words

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • Each year an organization called Improbable Research, publishers of the bi-monthly magazine Annals of Improbable Research, award the Ig® Nobel Prizes for “research that makes people laugh and then think.”

    The 2010 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three scientists in the UK “for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.” 

    I have to admit my response met their criteria.  It made me laugh, then it made me think.  What I thought was, “Who in the world spent good money to fund this research?!”

    I wasn't able to find an answer to my question.  I couldn't even get a copy of the full journal article without paying for it, which I wasn't about to do.  So, admitedly, my opinions are based on a seven-sentence research abstract, which may not be entirely fair. 

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    According to the abstract, 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.  Participants were asked to say a swear word one time and then a neutral word another time when they were tested.  They found that swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing for everyone except males who had a tendency to catastrophize. 

    I've been trying to figure out what the value of this study was.  While swearing might slightly decrease the pain of short-lived, relatively minor pain like that from stubbing your toe on the table leg or whacking your elbow on the door jamb, what value does it have for chronic pain or even severe acute pain that takes more than a few minutes to resolve?  Obviously we can't spend our days screaming expletives in an attempt to ease our pain. 

    I thought perhaps the study helped identify some key about the mechanism of pain that could later be developed into an effective method of treatment.  But apparently not.  In the end, the scientists just took a guess as to why swearing seemed to help saying, “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.”

    Maybe I'm overreacting.  It's just that there is such a need for more serious research to find ways to help people living with life-altering chronic pain, it really bothers me to see money spent on studies like this. 

    What do you think?


    Postscript:  One of our members – cybersleuth58 – posted an excellent comment explaining the probable reasoning behind this study.  If that is the case, I happily retract my criticism.  I wish the purpose of the study had been made a little clearer in the abstract since most of us will never have access to read the entire article.  I encourage you to read cybersleuth58's comment below.


    Stephens R, Atkins J, Kingston A. Swearing as a response to pain. Neuroreport. 2009 Aug 5;20(12):1056-60.


Published On: January 30, 2011