Profanity in Physiotherapy…

WARNING: this blog is a little controversial, and a lot tongue in cheek. It is meant to be a bit of fun and not taken too seriously. It does contain the odd rude word or two, although it has unfortunatley been heavily censored from its original version due to complaints to and by the CSP. So if you are the delicate type and get easily upset, offend or lack a sense of humour DO NOT read on!


You maybe aware that I have a tendency to swear a little now and then. In fact I swear a f**king lot and I often get lots of f** king complaints about my swearing with many telling me that it’s not big nor clever. Well actually I’m going to show you another side to swearing. I’m going to show you how swearing can actually a good thing and be sign of higher levels of intelligence.

When done well swearing can capture attention, emphasise a point, and invigorate the sluggish into action, and when you look into the history of swearing it really is fascinating stuff. For example have you noticed that despite the English language being a complex mix of many other languages such as Latin, Greek, Dutch, Arabic, Norse, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, and many others, most of our swear words originate from our Germananic cousins, for example I’m sure you don’t need me to translate the German arsch, scheissen and ficken for you.

Our swear words used today share this heritage with our German ancestors thanks to William the Conqueror, he from the Battle of Hastings fame. When William took control of England in 1066 the country was soon divided by language with the higher noble classes speaking the French Gallo-Roman dialect, but the rest of the country, the commoners, speaking the old English dialect based in west Germanic roots.

This split in society way back is why swearing is still today considered ‘vulgar’ (a word derived from Latin meaning ‘of the crowd’) and also explains why these words have acquired their power to offend due to the long held prejudices that taught people to view the vocabulary of the french conquerors as elevated and cultured, and the vocabulary of the conquered commoners as distasteful and crass.

However, before you go getting all righteous and noble, thinking swearing is a sign of the common lower classes, you should also remember that modern day Christianity was founded on swearing by the noblest of the noble. To ‘swear an oath to god’ was literally done regularly and common practice in medieval times by many Christian knights, many of who were noble men of honour and privilege.

To swear upon Gods body was seen as an effort to compel God to pay attention to your promise. People would actually curse on a body part of God to prevent them from, or prove to others that they wont break a vow or a pledge, to do so after swearing an oath was thought to dishonor God and risk eternal damnation. It was believed that if you swore on God’s blood, said ‘sblood‘ or his bones, you physically spilled his blood, or broke his bones in heaven. So swearing has a rich and interesting history and has been around for as long as we have spoken, being used by noble and commoners alike, and like it or not it will remain to do so.

But swearing does still offend many, with many seeing it as a sign of low intelligence and poor vocabulary. Well actually thats a myth, swearing has in fact been shown here to demonstrate the exact opposite. This study showed that those who swear more fluently and colourfully are more fluent in general language skills, refuting the common assumption that an ability to generate a foul stream of bad language is a sign of language poverty.

Swearing has also been found to be helpful when dealing with painful events. Most of you know this all ready. I’m sure you can all remember a time when you have hit your head, stubbed your toe, hit a finger with a heavy implement, only to jump around shouting and cursing obsentities whilst furiously rubbing or squeezing the painful body part.

Swearing 1

This phenomenon lead researcher Dr Richard Stephens to conduct a study here into the effect of swearing on pain tolerance after he saw, and heard, his wife going through painful child birth, using words that he thought only a seasoned merchant sailor should know. In his study he asked 64 subjects to immerse their hands into an icy bucket of water whilst remaining quiet. He then repeated the experiment but this time asked subjects to swear and shout. They found that whilst swearing the subjects could keep their hand in the icy water for nearly twice as long, on average 2 minutes, whereas without swearing they could last only an average of around 1 minute 15 seconds.

Whilst it’s not exactly clear how or why this works, they believe that the pain-lessening effects occur because swearing triggers our natural ‘fight-or-flight’ response. They suggest that the accelerated heart rates of the volunteers repeating the swear words may indicate an increase in aggression, in a classic fight-or-flight response of downplaying a weakness or threat in order to deal with it. However, a word of warning if you do drop a few F-bombs when in pain, a follow up study here showed if you do it too much too often the pain relieving effects of swearing dimish. 

But regardless perhaps we should be using and harnessing this phenomenon of swearing increasing pain tolerance in our line of work? We often see people in pain, we often need to ask them to do things when in pain, and many therapists often  look to create the so called ‘window of opportunity‘ to help do this. So how about the next time you want to open this window of opportunity you simply ask your patients to shout out a few choice curse words and volia? It is after all an evidence based intervention, probably more so than many of the other treatments done under the lame excuse of creating a window of opportunity.

Now of course I am not really suggesting or advocating the indiscriminate use of bad language, we need to be respectful and mindful of the societal restrictions with swearing. For example swearing in front of children is an absolute no-no, and we need to be careful of swearing in front of new acquaintances, as well as offering warnings that bad language could occur in written or recorded publications, just as I did at the beginning of this blog to give poeple the option to avoid it if they wish.

It has been suggested that those who use swearing the most successfully are those who are aware of these restrictions as well as the context and the environment they are in. They also tend evaluate their listeners carefully to ensure that there will be little negative but maximal positive effects to swearing (ref), so perhaps its best used for those patients who you have evaluated their suitability.

So in summary, swearing has a rich history and is a fundamental and important part of our lives. It is surrounded by many myths and misconceptions, such as being uncouth, common, and a sign of low intelligence or morality, all of which is f**king bull shit. It would be hard to imagine, if not impossible to go throughout life without swearing, and I for one have no f**king intention of doing so.

As always, thanks for reading


19 thoughts on “Profanity in Physiotherapy…

  1. Absolutely love your articles and podcasts! Have been a PT for a l-o-o-n-g time. Enjoying your work here in New England, US.

  2. “Swearing when done well can capture attention, emphasize a point, and invigorate the sluggish into action….”

    Better do it right next time please!

  3. Morning,

    Excellent piece put in historical context. The good old Saxons new a word or two. And the Vikings in disguise AKA Normans were a worthy addition. William was a bastard by the way in both of its meanings.
    Never trust a person who doesn’t swear a wise old man used to tell me.
    Looking forward to the next chapter in the history of swearing you belligerent receptacle to put a scythe in.

    All the best

  4. Hey Adam,

    Im a German, that’s why its very funny what talking about swearing. I think what you said is a big problem. The human race love to believe in Santa Claus especially medical Jobs. Why is that? You have to think that most medical influence comes in history from alternativ branches and we love to believe in something mysterious what we can’t explain. The wish to heal is so big that dont want to believe in rational thinking. That is my short explaintation about these theme.

    I had an interesting discussion with an Chiropractics how is telling me that we need scientific Investigation for Manipulation on cervical spine in new Born. Because it is important to find out for handling and safetiness ( when you can “crack” when not. I showed him that is no evidence of benefits with cochrane Review. Then he sad that chiros are safe… showed me an study that no chiro klled a Baby, but he just looked always on the conclusion and not into the results. In the resulsts they mentioned that there is registrated major injuries on newborn after a chiro care.
    My conclusion is they love to believe in these bullshit equal there is a big ethical Problem or not.

    But thank’s for your blog. You give me Inspiration in my thinking. Sorry for the bad English

  5. When I was a physio student, I received a professional warning while on an acute care placement for calling a patient “mate”. The world has gone fucking mad Adam. Thanks for the blog mate.

  6. Swearing, and insults too are great relievers of tension, and pain, mental and physical. The English and Americans are wonderful experts at this skill.
    However the best show great variety in this territory. And variety in production is the spice of life. So using “f**king” 75-80% of the time is kind of softening its impact from overuse. There comes a point when listeners don’t even notice the word, which barely registers in their conscious minds. The swearing or the insult, too often repeated, loses its impact and efficacy.
    So variety is welcome, the more the better. Reducing the swearing world to just “f**king” gets quickly boring, same as calling weak minds “fool”, “idiot”, “jackass”, etc. Invention in swearing and insulting is a wonderful dimension of the creative mind. Suppressing them leads to an atrophy of the functions in our prefrontal cortex.

  7. I have loved your blogs ……. up until now! This one is ridiculous. How is this treating all of our clients with dignity and respect? You are not what I imagined Adam. I didn’t realise you are 16 years old and an idiot.

    • I’m sorry you didnt enjoy the blog, there is a clear disclaimer at the beginning that it may not be suitable for everyone, and so responsibility for your offence is soley yours. Also I find it quite ironic that you think I am 16 years old and an idiot yet you’re the one name calling and throwing ad homs around!

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