I really don’t mind if you do. Although joint injections in the my hands aren’t too painful, the first time a doctor put a needle into my knee I swore*. The expletives popped out of me, just like they did when I splashed petrol in my eyes filling up the lawnmower, or when I cut my finger chopping chillies.
I had always assumed that swearing occurred as a reflex in response to pain but there is also some research that suggests that swearing may have some pain killing effects too.
Researchers from Keele University examined pain responses in those who were encouraged to swear on exposure to placing a hand in cold water to pain responses in those who simply uttered a non-swear word. Here’s what they found;
- Those who swore were able to tolerate the pain for longer (on average, 31 seconds) and rated their pain lower than those who uttered an alternative non-swear word. The swear words used were not listed in the paper (the schoolboy in me checked).
- Those who swore developed higher pulse rates than those who didn’t swear, prompting the authors to speculate that the act of swearing somehow revs up the physiological ‘fight or flight’ response to pain and in turn eases it. They also suggest that more research needs to be done to clarify this.
- Swearing doesn’t work for everybody – those with a high daily swearing frequency didn’t get as much relief; if you tend to swear alot anyway, it may be less effective to swear when you actually need to.
- Swearing may be less effective as a pain killer in men who are prone to catastrophise. (To catastrophise is have irrational thoughts which suggests that things are much worse than they are).
There are some limitations affecting the broad applicability of the results of this study. Firstly, it only examines one kind of pain – that induced by cold. It would be interesting to see whether it held true for pain induced by heat or, for example electric shocks.
Whereas it studied the effect of swearing as an analgaesic on acute pain, it excluded those with chronic painful conditions. It is unclear therefore, whether swearing would have any lasting effect on those with chronic painful conditions like arthritis.
More research is needed before I’ll be prescribing swearing as part of the treatment for my patients. I’m sure its widespread use will continue nonetheless….
What do you think?
*I have had my knees injected on a few occasions, usually with very little discomfort. The first time I had it done was when I was working in research (examining joint fluid from non-arthritic joints) by a fellow trainee. His injection skills have improved a lot since then but then so have mine.