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Swearing as a response to pain

Stephens, Richard; Atkins, John; Kingston, Andrew

doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1

Although a common pain response, whether swearing alters individuals' experience of pain has not been investigated. This study investigated whether swearing affects cold-pressor pain tolerance (the ability to withstand immersing the hand in icy water), pain perception and heart rate. In a repeated measures design, pain outcomes were assessed in participants asked to repeat a swear word versus a neutral word. In addition, sex differences and the roles of pain catastrophising, fear of pain and trait anxiety were explored. Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. However, swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise. The observed pain-lessening (hypoalgesic) effect may occur because swearing induces a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception.

School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, UK

Correspondence to Dr Richard Stephens, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, UK

Tel: +44 1782 733600; fax: +44 1782 733387;


This research was carried out at the School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, UK

Received 1 April 2009 accepted 28 April 2009

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.