FYI Daily

A Natural Painkiller: Swearing (Sparingly)

Last updated:

November 26, 2011

It can be no fun to care for a foul-mouthed loved one. Here's a possible explanation that might make the experience more endurable: Cursing can reduce pain considerably, according to British research published in The Journal of Pain and reported in Time.

But the cursing cure only works if you don't make a habit of it. Psychologist Richard Stephens at Keele University experimented with college students who plunged their hands into buckets of cold water. Almost three-fourths of the participants kept their hands under water longer while swearing -- an average of 31 seconds longer. But the more the subjects swore in everyday life, the less strong this effect was for them.

If you're caring for a curser, you might be interested in one pain theory behind this experiment: People who express pain verbally (as in, "%#@(!") tend to be more sensitive to acute and chronic pain. So these chronic swearers do so to relieve pain and irritability -- but the more they do so, the more tolerant they are to the opioid effect that the curse words provide.

(Worth knowing: A cause of cursing in people with dementia -- even those who never used to use expletives -- is a loss of inhibition.)

Just refrain from making a habit of swearing yourself, no matter how stressed you get -- that way, you'll be more likely to benefit from the painkilling power of a well-placed curse word in moments when you're really hurtin'.