Hurt Yourself? Go Ahead and Swear—Then Do This

Study: Swearing is a helpful response to pain. But there are less inflammatory ways to deal with smashing your thumb or stubbing your toe.

July 17, 2009

Nailed it: Some loud cursing may help, but follow up with some ice.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Ever miss the nail and accidentally hammer your thumb? Or stub your toe trying to find the bathroom in the dark? Chances are, curse words followed—and maybe that’s a good thing. New research suggests that swearing can actually make us feel better, increasing pain tolerance.


THE DETAILS: Researchers of the study, to be published in the journal NeuroReport, asked 64 undergraduate volunteers to stick their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as possible while repeating the swear word of their choice. Then, they repeated the icy experiment, but this time to subjects repeated a less offensive word. When swearing, students were able to keep their hand in the water longer, indicating better pain tolerance. “Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon,” says study author Richard Stephens, PhD, professor of psychology at Keele University in England. “Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed, and why it persists.” The researchers are not clear why there is a link between swearing and increased pain tolerance, but suggest that swearing activates our fight-or-flight response, which unleashes some of the body’s natural painkillers.

WHAT IT MEANS: This study gives us insight as to why so many of us let the expletives fly during life’s painful moments. So next time, go ahead and curse if you’re so inclined. But once the effects of swearing wear off, here are some other strategies to help you heal.

• Put the pain on ice. Apply an ice pack as soon as possible after a blunt injury, but make sure you wrap it in a thin cloth to protect your skin. Keep the ice in place for 15 minutes. If the bruise is more severe, you can repeat the 15-minute ice treatment every few hours during the first 24 hours after the injury. Don’t apply heat during this timeframe. After 24 hours, use heat therapy—hot packs, a warm washcloth—to dilate the blood vessels and improve the circulation that will help clean up the injured tissue.

• Mix ice with herbs. It’s a good idea to keep some extra-potent ice in the freezer for your next mishap. Put a handful of parsley and ¼ cup water in a blender and whir until it becomes slushy. Then fill an ice cube tray half full with the mixture, and freeze. When a bruise strikes, wrap the cubes in gauze or a thin cloth and apply. Parsley is a cooling herb that fights inflammation and pain. You can also drop a cube into some soup for an extra herbal punch (and flavor)!

• Let calendula help. Calendula, a common plant grown in North America, has been used as a traditional remedy for minor skin abrasions as well as to help heal broken bones. Check for calendula-based remedies where herbs and supplements are sold. Or make a tea of calendula by pouring 1 cup boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of the flowers. Let the tea steep for 15 minutes, strain, and drink it. Do this three times a day. For cuts and scrapes, you can dip a cloth in the cooled tea and apply it to the wound, or look for a topical solution at a health-food store.

Tags: first aid
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