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Earlier today, during one of my many home improvement projects ("experiments" may be a more appropriate term) I struck my thumb with a hammer.

Without thinking, I released a reflexive string of profanity which quite possibly made my dog blush and certainly caused my neighbors to stand up and take notice. However, by the time the last four-letter word escaped my lips, the pain had faded, and in fact was almost gone.

Almost everyone can remember this happening or has at least observed it a few times.

That swearing after an injury can ease pain seems to be a commonly held belief (at least in America), but is it really more effective than just screaming, or simply remaining silent?

Is there evidence that swearing can either lessen the pain of acute injuries or our perception of it? Has this been studied?

  • Excellent question. Always works for me...data would be cool. – Rusty May 7 '11 at 20:50
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    Tested by the Mythbusters in No Pain, No Gain – Oliver_C May 7 '11 at 20:56
  • @Oliver_C That's the first thought I had when I saw this question. – Mateen Ulhaq May 8 '11 at 4:20
  • It would be interesting to see if it is swearing itself or the vocalizations that helped reduce pain intensity. E.g. would yelling out pleasantries - slam "WHAT A WONDERFUL WONDERFUL DAY" - with the same intensity have the same effect. – crasic May 8 '11 at 19:02
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I think The Mythbusters based their experiment on this:

Swearing helps to reduce pain

Dr Richard Stephens, from Keele's school of psychology, came up with the idea for the study after swearing when he accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer as he built a garden shed.

He recruited 64 volunteers to take part and each individual was asked to submerge their hand in a tub of freezing water for as long as possible...

... the researchers found that the volunteers were able to keep their hands plunged in the ice water for a longer period of time when repeating [a] swear word.


While it is not clear how or why this link exists, the team believes that the pain-lessening effect occurs because swearing triggers our natural 'fight-or-flight' response.

Here is the abstract of the original paper.

  • Had I done a little more researchbefore posting this, I would have found that they were awarded an igNobel for that paper. – Monkey Tuesday May 7 '11 at 23:45
  • This is purely speculation, but I'd imagine that swearing releases adrenalin and increases the heart rate, both of which are known factors in reduced pain reception. – Polynomial Jul 16 '12 at 22:20

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