How Do “Swear” Words Affect Pain Onset and Tolerance?

low back pain
low back pain
The researchers created two new “swear” words and assessed the pain-relieving effects of saying these new words during an ice-water pain challenge.

New made-up “swear” words do not benefit pain tolerance or pain threshold the way conventional swearing does, researchers found in a UK study published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The researchers included 92 adults (59 women, 32 men, 1 declined to identify) with a mean age of 27.8 years.

Participants donned adhesive electrodes at one wrist of the participant’s choosing and the inner part of each ankle. The researchers recorded the resting heart rate of each participant. The participants completed the Pain Catastrophizing Questionnaire and the Fear of Pain Questionnaire Version 3, which the researchers compiled to gather descriptive data.

The participants immersed their nonpreferred hand in a bath at room temperature for 3 minutes and then submerged it in an ice-water bath while repeating an independent variable word once every 3 seconds. The 4 independent variable words were a conventional swear word (“fuck”); new swear word #1 (“fouch”), chosen because it promotes emotional resonance; new swear word #2 (“twizpipe”), chosen because it promotes distraction or humor; and a neutral word (a word to describe a table) control condition.

They told the researchers when the submersion became painful (to indicate pain onset latency) and took their hand out of the ice water when the pain became unbearable (to reveal pain tolerance latency). Participants moved their hand back to the room temperature bath for 3 minutes and completed the Perceived Pain Scale and word ratings between trials.

Pairwise comparisons for emotion rating showed that fuck, F(1,259.8)=71.701, P <0.001; fouch, F(1,259.8)=5.781, P =.017; and twizpipe, F(1,259.8)=4.658, P =.032, gained significantly higher ratings than the neutral word. Fuck, F(1,273)=31.720, P <.001; fouch, F(1,273)=11.356, P =.001; and twizpipe, F(1,273)=39.513, P <.001, gained significantly higher humor ratings than the neutral word.

Fuck was rated significantly higher in distraction ratings than the neutral word, F(1,273)=39.343, P <.001. Fouch and twizpipe did not show any difference compared with the neutral word, F(1,273) < 1.0.

Analyses of variance (ANOVAs) found significant variances for pain onset: F(2.779,216.789)=11.123, MSe=158.739, P <.001, ηp2=0.125 and for pain tolerance, F(2.432,221.285)=18.917, MSe=559.518, P <.001, ηp2=0.172, but not for pain perception, F(3,246)=1.651, MSe=1.893, P =.178, ηp2 = 0.020, nor for change from resting heart rate, F(2.806,244.129)=1.336, MSe=34.159, P =.263, ηp2=0.015.

Pain-onset latency was longer for fuck compared with the neutral word F(1,261.8)=21.283, P <.001. Pain-onset latencies for fouch, F(1,261.8)<1.0, and twizpipe, F(1,261.8)<1.0, were similar to that of the neutral word.

There were longer pain tolerance latencies for fuck compared with the neutral word, F(1,221.3)=27.865, P <.001. Pain tolerance latencies for fouch, F(1,221.3)<1.0, and twizpipe, F(1,221.3)<1.0, were similar to that for the neutral word.

Swearing predicted pain tolerance, β=18.411; 95% CI, 11.216-25.605, and emotion, β=17.891; 95% CI, 13.143-22.640, but emotion did not predict pain tolerance, β=0.266; 95% CI, -0.070 to 0.602. Swearing predicted humor ratings, β=18.349; 95% CI, 11.698-24.998, but humor ratings did not predict pain tolerance, β= -0.035; 95% CI, -0.263 to 0.192. Swearing predicted distraction ratings, β=18.120; 95% CI, 12.525-23.714, but distraction ratings did not predict pain tolerance, β= -0.064; 95% CI, -0.340 to 0.212.

Limitations of the study included the possibility that participants guessed the aims of the study and may have changed their behavior accordingly.

Disclosure: This research was supported by Nurofen. Please see the original reference for a full list of authors’ disclosures.


Stephens R, Robertson O. Swearing as a response to pain: assessing hypoalgesic effects of novel “swear” words. Front Psychol. 2020;11:723. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00723

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor