The curse of bad language may not be that bad after all


Victims of paper cuts and stubbed toes don't need scientists to tell them about the pain-healing power of swearing, but new research suggests the more you do it, the harder pain becomes to bear.

A study by Keele University confirms that swearing can act as a form of relief. But those who have become habituated to cursing (think Gordon Ramsay, or The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker) are less likely to feel the benefits.

Richard Stephens, of Keele's School of Psychology, said there was no "recommended daily swearing allowance" and it remains unclear whether certain swear words are more effective analgesics than others.

"We are just scratching the surface of how swearing can influence our emotions," he said.

Mr Stephens added: "If you are out somewhere and away from medical help, then swearing might give you some kind of short-term relief. Swearing exists because it's a form of emotional expression – it's there for us to use in extreme situations. But the less often you do it, the better you'll be when you need it."

His findings, appearing in the US publication The Journal of Pain, found that those who swear just a few times a day doubled how long they could withstand the "ice water challenge" – how long they could hold their hands in a container full of ice water. Those who admitted to the highest level of everyday cursing – up to a chain-swearing maximum of 60 expletives a day – did not show any benefit when undertaking the same challenge. The mechanism, the scientists say, is simple – swearing elicits an emotional response – leading to what is termed "stress-induced analgesia", also known as the "fight or flight" response, along with a surge of adrenaline.

Frequent swearers can utter profanities without feeling an emotional response – and thus do not get the same pain-relieving effects. Thus, it seems, swearing lightly in one's daily routine can help in the occasional, stressful situation.

"It would be silly to advocate swearing on the NHS," Stephens said, "but swearing seems to activate parts of the brain more associated with emotions. In the context of pain, swearing appears to serve as a simple form of emotional self-management. Whether swearing has beneficial effects in other contexts is something we would like to explore in the future."