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Swearing To Relieve Pain

via Chicago Tribune

Today the Tribune editorial page endorses swearing. Loudly. (We endorse swearing loudly, that is; our endorsement itself is sotto voce.)

Oops. Sorry, we forgot to mention one condition: Go ahead and scream that curse … to relieve physical pain.

British researchers report in the Journal of Pain (no, we didn’t make that up) that cursing can help many people better tolerate pain. Doctors call it “stress-induced analgesia.”

The researchers at Keele University in England asked subjects to submerge their hands in ice water. Those who swore repeatedly were able to keep their hands in the water for an average of 40 seconds longer than those who merely shouted a non-swear word, the study found.

So why does profanity work better than “fudge”? Possibly by provoking an emotional response — aggression, fear or anger — that helps mask or mute pain:

“Our hypothesis is that by swearing, the speaker experiences an emotional response due to breaking a taboo, and the emotional response is sufficient to set off the fight or flight response, which includes an adrenaline surge, increased heart rate and increased pain tolerance,” the lead researcher, psychology lecturer Richard Stephens, tells us.

This is great news. The next time your big toe unexpectedly meets the doorjamb, or you slice your finger instead of the bagel, research suggests you’ve got a fine excuse to blurt out a familiar four-letter word that is not ouch.

But here’s the latest twist in the research: Those who curse often and regularly — 60 times a day, as described by researchers — don’t get as much pain relief benefit.

About those people cursing more than 60 times a day … Sure, the modern newsroom is not a hushed cathedral of politesse. But we’re also mindful that profanity, like flattery, loses its potency after repeated use.

Swearing a lot is like smoking: You may think it’s cool, but it’s not. Those who relish a carefully crafted expletive know that less is more.

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