People who swear when they're hurt feel less pain than those who don't. At least that's the conclusion of a team of psychologists at England's Keele University.
The researchers asked 67 undergraduates to stick their hands in ice water while repeating a swear word of their choice, and then to do it again while repeating a non-swear word they had also chosen (Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston, “Swearing as a response to pain,” NeuroReport 20 [Aug. 5, 2009]: 1056-60). Swearers were able to keep their hands in the 5 degree C. water longer than non-swearers (though one participant did have to drop out of the study out because the swear word the student picked wasn’t actually a swear word).
The researchers were actually hoping to prove that swearing when you hit your thumb with a hammer or give birth to a baby actually makes things worse, not better, that swearing is, in the technical jargon of psychologists, “a maladaptive response to pain.” They were surprised to find the opposite, that swearing students, both male and female, showed significantly more resistance to pain while their hand was submerged in the cold water than students who repeated a non-swear word, an adjective for describing a table. Instead of being maladaptive, which is psych talk for ‘a bad thing,’ swearing turns out to be beneficial (for other research on the benefits of swearing at work, click here; for opinions ruling that swearing is legally maladaptive, click here and here and here).
Swearing exists in every human culture, where it is commonly used for condemning one's enemies, or just for letting off steam. Clarence Darrow may have been the first to describe swearing as a non-optional linguistic universal: "I don't swear just for the hell of it . . . . Language is a poor enough means of communication as it is. So we ought to use all the words we've got. Besides, there are damned few words that everybody understands."
from Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee (1960), p. 35
That swearing has health benefits will be bad news for those who think that it violates both the first amendment and the third commandment. But it’s good news for the big pharmaceutical companies, who are already trying to figure out how to bottle it.
Reeling from recent FDA calls for banning Vicodin and Tylenol, big pharma is looking for a way to market swearing as a safe, effective analgesic when taken as directed. Results not typical.
The drug makers anticipate that swearing will be even more profitable for them than statins or antidepressants. It's fast acting and reduces pain up to five times longer than the other leading medication. Despite public concerns, swearing has not proven to be addictive. Patients can stop swearing any time they want to. That they don't stop is further proof of its effectiveness. Side effects, though rare, include boils, frogs, locusts, blood, hail, darkness, and the smiting of the first born. A package insert warns that if erections persist for more than four hours, patients should go to the emergency room for evaluation by a trained professional.
Swearing is not yet FDA-approved, and it is not covered by most prescription drug plans, which consider the treatment experimental. However, because of high consumer demand, a brisk street trade in grey-market swear words has already sprung up, and Chicago public health officials will be setting up special tents to deal with increased numbers of swearing overdoses expected at Lollapalooza, the annual 3-day rock festival in Grant Park next month.
Chicago officials are preparing for an outbreak of low-grade, bootleg street swearing at next month’s Lollapalooza, the annual 3-day rock festival in Grant Park
Many doctors are already prescribing swearing for a variety of off-label uses, so if you’ve got a pain somewhere, do what Dr. House who's not a real doctor even though he plays one on TV tells all his patients: “Forget about Vicodin or Tylenol. Just curse two times and call me in the morning.”