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Go Ahead and Curse! It May Ease Your Pain

Study Shows That Swearing May Help Lessen the Perception of Pain

By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

July 13, 2009 -- It has long been a cliche: the woman in childbirth screaming curse words at her husband. Now, there's scientific research that may explain why people in pain often use offensive language.

The cursing may actually lessen the perception of pain.

That is the finding of a new study published in NeuroReport. Researchers at Keele University's School of Psychology recruited more than 60 undergraduates for the study. The students were asked to stick their hands in buckets of icy water twice. The first time, participants repeated a curse word over and over. The next time, they repeated an everyday, neutral word.

When they repeated the curse word, participants were able to withstand the water longer and reported a lesser pain level than when they repeated the neutral word.

"Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon," Richard Stephens, one of the study's authors, says in a news release. "It taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists."

While the reason for the link between bad words and less pain perception is not known, researchers believe that cursing may fuel a negative emotion such as fear or anger, which prompts a fight or flight response. One of their findings -- that people's heart rates were higher when cursing -- supports this theory.

SOURCES: Stephens, R. NeuroReport, 2009; vol 20: pp 1056-1060. News release, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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