Example sentence - This problem is a _____ which gets complicated every time you try to solve it.

Is there such a word that represents a problem which will become worse if/when one tries to solve it?

Note - After seeing the comments and answers I'd like to add that this is not a can of worms or Pandora's box because it doesn't create a new problem but just worsens.

Example: Magic leaves protecting a fruit by enclosing it. Every time a leaf is touched, all the leaves close together further, that is more tight than before.

  • 1
    Your question lacks detail, could you describe a situation where attempting a solution has made it worse? Could you at least provide the context, why are you looking for such a word or idiom?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 4:15
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    I believe that "mew problem" > "new problem".
    – Stan
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 5:59
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    Regarding create new problems vs problem worsening, I agree with earlier comments that a specific example would help as often these are interchangeable. Maybe an idiom not specifically related to problems would do - spiraling out of control or positive-feedback loop.
    – k1eran
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 9:21
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    "Chinese finger trap" as a figurative usage might come close.
    – quelcjlx
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 2:40
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    "Quagmire" or "sticky situation" are probably the best and most current. "Tar baby" is good but rather dated. "Quicksand" is pretty good but that's more like a situation that's dangerous and final (sinking in quicksand) rather than just a mess. A quagmire or a sticky situation denotes something that's probably solvable but gets ugly if you mess with it.
    – JamieB
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 15:22

19 Answers 19


can of worms

informal. a situation that causes a lot of problems for you when you start to deal with it:
Corruption is a serious problem, but nobody has yet been willing to open up that can of worms. — Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus

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    Can of worms is for new problems arising out of a bad decision or action and not for the worsening of the original one. Your answer is inappropriate.
    – user173199
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 1:11
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    @User1234567890: Just FWIW, "inappropriate" is a fairly harsh word. It doesn't suit your desired use, fine, but "can of worms" was a reasonable answer to your originally-posed question. Frequently, a can of worms is a problem in the first place, we just choose not to address the problem because...it's a can of worms. Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 10:59
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    @T.J.Crowder I am not a native speaker. Inappropriate is among the few adjective I know for something wrong. I don't have enough words in my vocabulary to talk in that sense. I didn't mean to hurt or offend.
    – user173199
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 11:39
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    @User1234567890: I thought that might be the case; that's why I flagged it up for you. :-) Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 11:42
  • I believe there are more suitable (appropriate) answers than this excepted answer. All due respect.
    – haha
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 20:06

See tar baby.


A difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.

  • 34
    The original meaning is a good fit, but beware of the other meaning, which is a racial slur.
    – David K
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 21:34
  • Also: sticky situation.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 0:11
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    @DavidK: I think "tar pit" would work, and convey the intended meaning. Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 9:30
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    @PeterCordes That could be an answer. When I read "tar pit" I think of prehistoric animals trapped in the famous La Brea Tar Pits in California. Fred Brooks famously used "tar pit" as a metaphor for the difficulties of developing large software systems: "The more you fight it, the deeper you sink!"
    – David K
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 11:52
  • @DavidK: Apparently "hard problem" is already an accepted meaning for Tar Pit. I added an answer with that. Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 12:07

Hydra-Headed problem. The Lernaean Hydra was a sticky problem for Heracles. It regrew two heads each time one was lopped off.

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    Just "hydra" would work.
    – Simon
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 11:36
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    @Simon It was the heads that would double, not the Hydra herself.
    – EKons
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 22:26
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    @Constant'sErik Yes, the heads double, but the Hydra as a whole remains a problem that worsens with every attempt to solve it. Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 0:30
  • @Timbo It was the heads that were attacking. The necks were doubling every cut head. The rest of the Hydra just provided life. The Hydra's body wasn't getting bigger and bigger. Instead, the heads were the problem actually worsening when someone tried to solve it (Heracles).
    – EKons
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 7:19

Something that is occasionally used metaphorically in this sense is quicksand:

a situation that is dangerous and difficult to escape from - merriam-webster.com

  • 12
    Also: quagmire.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 0:11
  • On quicksands, the more you try to escape, the more you sink. (might be be true in real life, but it illustrate the situation greatly) Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 3:48
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    "Quagmire" is often used to describe political situations where it seems to just get worse whatever you do, and no good outcome is in sight. Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 9:41
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    Giggidy... giggidy
    – Arj
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 8:49

Tar pit is similar to Tar baby, but is a simpler metaphor to understand. The simple and obvious meaning is that touching the problem will get you stuck in it / to it. Apparently this is an existing usage of the term.

Tar pit

  1. a hollow in which natural tar accumulates by seepage.
  2. a complicated or difficult situation or problem. "the tar pit of municipal poverty"

from google's definition

BTW, Tar baby is a reference to a fictional character that some people won't have heard of. If you're talking to people that probably have heard of the Tar Baby story, then it might be an even better choice.

Tar pit also avoids the racist interpretation of Tar baby that apparently exists.


I have heard situations in which every "solution" causes more problems referred to as a quagmire:

1. An area of miry or boggy ground whose surface yields under the tread; a bog.
2. A situation from which extrication is very difficult: a quagmire of financial indebtedness.
3. Anything soft or flabby.

For example, see this George Soros quote:

No external power, no terrorist organization, can defeat us. But we can defeat ourselves by getting caught in a quagmire.


An instance of a bottomless pit (meaning 4)

an entity or problem which consumes seemingly endless resources.

or figuratively a black hole. There is a StackExchange illustration for a bottomless pit in a finite universe, based on Gabriel's horn, an interesting mathematical object:

Gabriel's horn


A Gordian Knot. This suggests an intractable problem that can be solved by drastic action or innovative thinking (because Alexander the Great solved the Gordian Knot by cutting it with his sword).

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    The Gordian Knot was severed (or otherwise untied) by Alexander the Great, not Hercules. Even the link you provide says as much.
    – abligh
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 8:38
  • Sorry about that, fixed. Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 23:52

I would vote for "Wicked Problem" - which is not just a qualifier, but has been used in a more precise sense, especially in Social Policy Planning, as detailed in the Wikipedia entry.

The same entry also provides a comprehensive bibliography and points to related terms.

  • "Wicked" in this technical sense is a very good answer, but the fine implications are not likely to be widely understood. (I only heard this definition on a course in Project Risk Management.)
    – AAT
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 9:09
  • @AAT - yes, I know, this is why I added the Wikipedia link, most people would probably not know about the technical meaning, unfortunately.
    – p.marino
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 7:06
  • As I said, it is a very good answer! I agree also with your "unfortunately": let's agree to do our best to spread the word!
    – AAT
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 12:18

It's a Gordian Knot, in that pulling on the rope (to try to undo it) just makes the knot tighter.

Alexander the Great gave that a new meaning (by cutting through it with his sword), but that (an untractable problem made worse by trying to solve it) is what it used to be before he showed up.


You could use aggravate, the second definition in Merriam Webster defines aggravate as:-

to make worse, more serious, or more severe : intensify unpleasantly

So as per your example: 'This problem is aggravated every time you try to resolve it.'

Another word you could use is exasperate: Merriam Webster lists this as obsolete though it is the first word I thought of after reading your question.

  • simple! but that's it
    – haha
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 19:52

It's a long expression / saying but it means exactly to find oneself in a worse predicament, or make a bad situation worse.

out of the frying pan into the fire

Fig. from a bad situation to a worse situation. (*Typically: get ~; go ~; jump ~.)
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs


You could also tangentially consider a minefield:

a subject, situation, etc, beset with hidden problems
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition

This is generally used to describe a problem that will be a lot more complex to solve than it looks, often looking unassumingly simple.


A conundrum is a problem that apparently has no solution, as more complications appear as aspects of it are solved.

2a: a question or problem having only a conjectural answer.
b: an intricate and difficult problem


A bureaucratic / procedurally descriptive phrase is the one step forward, two steps back idiom.  This seems fairly self-explanatory; it is defined in The Free Dictionary as

something that you say which means every time you make progress, something bad happens which causes you to be in a worse situation than you were to begin with


This fits to a degree:

  • No win scenario


Although your example might have a solution which is as yet unknown.


I would try paradox

It is commonly defined as a problem that made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible.

Thus by your example when attempting to open a leaf ball, it closes. Or in the example of quick sand, the more you struggle, the more difficult it is to escape.


Apart, perhaps, from 'gordian knot' as has already been suggested, I can't think of any word or compound with an established definition that exactly fits the bill.

So, it's been mentioned already but, to me, conundrum would work best in the sentence given

This problem is a conundrum which gets [more?] complicated every time you try to solve it.

Conundrum, of course, means:

Any puzzling question or problem; an enigmatical statement. - OED

Which, on it's own, doesn't really fit the exact requirement that the OP has posted.

However, I would argue that, in current usage, it is filling the gap.

A quick check on Google News returns these on the first page:

  • White House Countdown: The Ryan Conundrum

  • The Afghan conundrum

  • British farmers face conundrum: the hearts says ‘Leave’ the EU but the head says ‘Remain’

  • Promising Gene Therapies Pose Million-Dollar Conundrum

  • A political conundrum

In each of these cases the 'conundrum' is an issue or question that can be described quickly, often in a single, brief paragrapgh, but which is complicated and, often apparently unsolvable.


Such a problem is snowballing or is experiencing a snowball effect

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

Figurative. [for something] to become larger or more serious by growing like a snowball being rolled. This whole problem is snowballing into a crisis very rapidly. The argument soon snowballed into a full-blown riot.