Professor Nicholas Washmuth | Professor Richard Stephens – The Power of Words: Could Swearing Be a Useful Therapeutic Tool for Physiotherapists?
About this episode
Words change how people think, feel, and behave. As such, the words that medical professionals use have the potential to improve or worsen how patients feel. In physiotherapy, language may be just as important as physical interventions for achieving positive outcomes. So, what about swear words? While most of us swear sometimes and taboo words have been around since language emerged, their potential benefits are often ignored due to controversy and negative associations. Professors Nicholas Washmuth and Richard Stephens argue we should change this. In the right circumstances, they believe that swearing can significantly improve patient outcomes. Read More
Taboo words produce strong reactions in others that we don’t fully understand. Therefore, the act of swearing can negatively impact how a person is perceived by others, and may lead to social isolation. For example, a study into women with rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer found that swearing in the presence of others was related to an increase in depressive symptoms.
However, there is another side to the story.
Research has associated swearing with higher intelligence, lower deception, higher integrity, and greater creativity. Furthermore, swearing in the right way at the right time can create an informal, relaxed environment. This is because social groups depend on shared willingness to participate in taboo practices, which creates stronger social bonds. When it comes to swearing, it seems that context is everything.
Washmuth and Stephens suggest that physiotherapists could use social cues, such as facial expressions, tone and gestures, to determine whether swearing could strengthen a therapeutic relationship. Positive relationships between patients and therapists have been linked to improvements in outcomes, such as a reduction in musculoskeletal pain and social pain, which refers to the suffering felt when social connections are lost.
Strategic swearing can also improve physical pain thresholds and boost performance measures, such as power and force. For instance, studies have shown that repeating a swear word allows a person to withstand their hand being submerged in ice water for 40 seconds longer on average than when repeating a non-swear word. Research has also found that saying a swear word every three seconds during an anaerobic power test allowed people to exert greater levels of peak power compared to repeating a non-swear word.
Washmuth and Stephens argue that this could be utilised by physiotherapists to relieve pain and stress.
Of course, there are caveats. Swearing as a therapeutic tool will not be appropriate for all patients. Furthermore, swearing at physiotherapists should not be encouraged, as this could cause distress for therapists. Lastly, it is not clear which swear words are most useful, although Washmuth and Stephens suggest using the word an individual might say in response to banging their head accidentally.
Overall, it is unclear exactly why swearing elicits strong responses and how it is effective in reducing pain and improving physical performance. It may simply be that swearing distracts us. However, research has shown it has potential to improve patient outcomes, and it therefore deserves our attention.
Original Article Reference
Summary of the paper ‘Frankly, we do give a damn: improving patient outcomes with swearing’, in Archives in Physiotherapy, doi.org/10.1186/s40945-022-00131-8
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