Research is not always boring okay?
A paper published in April this year found swearing “fuck” to improve pain threshold and pain tolerance by over 30%!
Interestingly enough, using words such as “fouch” and “twizpipe” to have NO influence on both pain threshold and pain tolerance.
On the surface, this paper sounds like a joke but it really isn’t. The study is published in one of the biggest psychology journals Frontiers in Psychology and Olly Robertson, one of the authors, researches at Oxford University!
Swearing is more than a distraction
We know from neurobiology that we can make our pain feel better by providing some form of distraction. In academia, we refer to this mechanism as attention modulation.
This sounds like a big word but most of us would have utilised and experienced attention modulation before.
It’s like how rubbing your elbow after hitting it against the wall would make you feel better even though the rubbing action alone doesn’t change anything on a physiological level.
Maybe an itchy mosquito bite or rash that you have scratched till it’s raw and painful — what do you do?
You sink your fingernails into the area next to the itchy spot. Maybe you scratch the unaffected skin around where you are experiencing the itch.
With our intuition alone, we are all experts at distracting ourselves from unpleasant sensations.
However, interestingly, this study was able to demonstrate that swearing is not a distraction adaptation.
The researchers’ decision to compare an actual profanity to made-up swear words and a neutral word allows us to compare if the pain improvement is indeed from a “distraction” mechanism (i.e. swearing takes the attention away from the pain).
If the improvement in pain experience is from a distraction mechanism, it shouldn’t matter what you are saying. Your pain threshold and tolerance should both improve. However, this paper demonstrates that the words you choose matter — not all words are created equal.
P.S. the two made-up swear words were created by the leader researcher, a lexicographer (somebody who compiles dictionaries), a subject matter expert (scientist) in swearing, and two lay people. They are very serious about the study!
We don’t know why swearing works
The researchers examined a total of eight hypotheses and none of which explained why swearing helped people with their pain experience.
It’s clear that people do feel better.
We just don’t understand why.
There was some indication from previous research that perhaps it could be due to an emotional arousal, specifically of the autonomic nervous system, that induces a state of analgesia.
This is mostly inferred from research that demonstrated an increase in heart rate that accompanied swearing and that people who swore more on a daily basis experience less benefit for pain tolerance compared to those who swore less.
The idea was that people who swore more experienced less benefits because they are desensitised to swearing. As a result of the desensitisation, they experienced less emotional arousal.
Pretty cool idea right?
That totally makes sense to me but this study was unable to establish that such an emotional arousal response exist.
So, we still don’t know why swearing helps with pain but we do know it helps!
Words and narratives totally matter
In a previous blog post on pain education, I shared about how false beliefs — that stemmed from the “weak core” story physiotherapists and pilates instructors have been using — led a back pain patient to believe that she had to undergo an abortion.
When it comes to exercise, negative self-talk can completely negate the benefits of exercising. The study found that patients who engaged in positive self-talk experienced a 22% increase in pain threshold and those who used negative self-talk experienced a -4% change.
Negative 4%. That means they ended up experiencing MORE pain while doing the same exercise.
This is why we need research and evidence to guide clinical practice. At the end of the day, we can say being positive is good for you, being kind to yourself is good for you, etc. But really, how do we know it is actually good?
Positive self-talk can be so easily lumped with the #feelgood culture or the #positivevibesonly dogma.
In this case, however, we can quantitatively demonstrate that positive self-talk can make a significant improvement to your recovery.
How good is that?
Can you associate words with a painful experience?
In my mindfulness for chronic pain blog post, I wrote about people with chronic pain process stimulus differently. In the sense that the way their brain lights up (i.e. activates) is different from healthy, pain-free individuals.
What about words? Do they have an effect on brain processing?
A paper published in 2016 looking at lower pain found that pain patients do process words differently from people without pain.
In the study, pain-related words triggered a stronger activation in brain regions that process pain among chronic back pain sufferers. This effect was not found when the pain patients were shown neutral or positive words.
Can you F*** your pain away?
Yes, you can use explicit language and swear words to help you cope with your pain. Using a less-offensive substitute (e.g. “fish”), however, doesn’t have the same effect.
With that in mind, it’s also important to know that using pain-related words do trigger stronger activation of the brain involved with pain-processing.
From an exercise-recovery point of view, we know that negative self-talk can completely negate the pain relief commonly experienced with exercise.
At Square One Active Recovery, I use a research-based whole person approach to help you manage your pain. I stay on top of the latest research and as much as reasonably possible directly apply them to clinical practice. If you are suffering from chronic pain and simply aren’t getting better with traditional chiropractic or physiotherapy, book in an appointment with me today to discover the different right care can make.