Subjects: Behavioral health
Cursing out loud during a painful experience makes it hurt less, according to scientists at Keele University in Staffordshire, England.
To reach this conclusion, Richard Stephens and colleagues asked 67 undergraduate students to submerge one hand in a bucket of ice water. They instructed half the participants to curse at will during the experience, and told the others to repeat a word that could be used “to describe a table.”
The scientists measured pain tolerance by assessing how long members in each group left their hands in the ice bath. They also tracked pain perception and heart rate following the experience.
The swearing group, it turned out, had significantly increased pain tolerance and heart rate, and lower levels of perceived pain.
“If they swore, they held their hands in cold water for longer,” Stephens told MedPageToday.
The impact of cursing on pain tolerance was the same for men and women, but it caused a larger reduction in perceived pain and a larger bump in heart rate among women.
Stephens’ group concluded the findings might be related to the well-known “fight-or-flight” phenomenon, in which increased release of catecholamines triggers a slew of physiological responses including temporary increase in heart rate, exercise capacity and so on.
Gail Saltz, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia agreed that the fight-or-flight response can distract people’s attention to a point where they aren’t as cognizant of pain.
“If you’re screaming obscenities, you’re not thinking about your pain,” she told MedPageToday. “The distraction compartmentalizes the other experience.”
Of course, swearing has been a common response to pain for eons. “Many a woman in the delivery room has already figured that out,” Saltz said.
The write-up appears in NeuroReport.