While pain is difficult to quantify, there is evidence to suggest that your level of tolerance to it has a genetic component. In this article, we’ll cover different types of pain, plus the various reasons why some individuals have a higher threshold than others.
Why Do Humans Feel Pain?
Pain is your body’s way of signaling to you that something has been damaged. With illness, a headache or body ache is a signal to your brain that something is not functioning properly.
The human central nervous system comprises the spinal cord and the brain. The peripheral nervous system includes motor and sensory nerves. Nerves transmit information about what is going on in the environment to the brain via the spinal cord. The brain responds by sending information back to the nerves, triggering actions in response to pain.
Acute Pain Versus Chronic Pain
Acute pain is like the pain mentioned at the outset. When you hit your finger with a hammer or drop something on your toe, the pain is immediate, but it resolves itself within an expected amount of time.
When you hit your finger with a hammer, the sensory nerves in your finger tell the spinal cord that something is wrong. The spinal cord tells your brain that there is an issue, and your brain immediately decides how severe the injury is and what steps to take next. To do this, your brain relies on a stored database of past injuries.
Chronic pain is pain that continues long after the initial injury happened. Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for three months or longer after the expecting healing time for the trauma or injury.
There are several diseases that can cause chronic pain. For example, arthritis is where the joints are in a continued state of disrepair. Pain signals are being sent to the brain constantly. In other cases, there is no physical cause for the pain. However, the body’s pain response is the same. With chronic pain of this sort, it can be difficult or impossible to pinpoint its source and repair it.
Pain Is a Personal Experience
As mentioned above, when you experience pain, your brain associates that pain with past experiences. Pain messages travel through both the thinking and the emotional regions of your brain. Pain is not simply a physical sensation. It is also an emotional, social, and psychological sensation. Memories of past painful experiences, past health issues, coping strategies, and genetics can influence how severely you feel pain.
What Is High Pain Tolerance?
Pain tolerance is the amount of pain you can reasonably handle. You feel the pain but are also able to tolerate the pain.
Some people have a high pain tolerance so they can handle more pain than the average individual. Pain tolerance and pain threshold are different things.
The pain threshold is the point where stimulus triggers the sensation of pain. One person could be pricked with a needle and not feel anything. For another person, that same prick would cause intense pain. Pain tolerance would be the number of times a person who felt pain from the needle prick could tolerate or reasonably withstand being pricked by the needle.
What Causes High Pain Tolerance?
People are not simply born with a high pain tolerance. According to the American Pain Society, there are psychological, social-cultural, and patient biological factors that influence how a similar pain is perceived by individuals.
The mind and the emotions can moderate or intensify pain. However, someone who has been dealing with chronic pain can experience a hyper sensation. This is because chronic pain changes how the spinal cord, brain, and nerves process unpleasant stimuli.
Experiences, including past trauma, will influence how a person perceives pain and their sensitivity to it. Some researchers believe that continued exposure to painful stimuli will build up one's pain tolerance. People can learn to handle pain by becoming more conditioned to it. However, some studies suggest that repeated pain exposure can also make a person hypersensitive to minor pain in the future.
Is It Possible for a Person to Increase Their Pain Tolerance?
According to a 2014 study published in PubMed Central, yoga can increase pain tolerance. Yoga includes a combination of breathing exercises, postures, mental training, and meditation. Participants in the 2014 study were able to tolerate more pain if they practiced yoga as opposed to their non-yoga practicing counterparts. The same study suggested that yoga participants had more gray matter in the areas of the brain related to processing pain, increasing attention, and pain regulation.
Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, seems to increase pain tolerance and decrease pain perception. For example, one study showed that a vigorous cycling program helps participants increase pain tolerance.
According to the U.S. Association for the Study of Pain, vocalization, like saying “ouch,” when you experience pain increases pain tolerance. A similar study done earlier found that people who used profanity while experiencing pain had higher pain tolerance than people who said a neutral word.
Mental imagery, which is creating lively images in your mind, can be a great way of managing pain. For example, when a person is experiencing pain, they can imagine a glowing metal ball. In their mind, they can try to shrink that ball and change it from red to blue. Or they can picture their body relaxing. Whatever imagery is used, the more detailed it is, the greater the benefit.
Biofeedback therapy can increase your awareness of how your body views pain and other stimuli. During this type of therapy, the therapist will teach you how to make the most of relaxation techniques, mental exercises, and breathing exercises to overcome your body’s response to stress or pain.
What Are the Risks of High Pain Tolerance?
Having high pain tolerance can sometimes be useful. But it also carries several risks.
Pain is the body’s warning system. It tells the brain when the body is experiencing dangerous or harmful stimuli from the environment. A high pain tolerance or the inability to feel pain at all can be dangerous.
An individual may not realize that they have hurt themselves or understand the extent of an injury they have sustained.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, people who are less sensitive to pain may have an increased risk of experiencing “silent” heart attacks.
When you think about the classic symptoms of a heart attack, one of the first symptoms you think about is chest pain. However, some people have silent heart attacks. They do not notice the obvious symptoms.
According to this study, people who could withstand cold-induced pain are not as sensitive to the pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. Increased pain tolerance made these individuals not realize the seriousness of their symptoms and instead opt to endure the symptoms as opposed to getting needed help.
Why Do Some People Have a Lower Pain Tolerance?
There are several surprising culprits that cause people to have a low pain tolerance.
Insomnia, according to a study published in the Journal Pain, is a major contributor to reduced pain tolerance. If a person experiences insomnia at least once a week, they may have a lower pain tolerance than people who have no trouble sleeping. Researchers are still figuring out why this correlation exists.
According to Psychology Today, depression manifests itself as pain. A study suggested that individuals who battle depression have a lower pain threshold and experience more intense pain with greater frequency. They also complain about pain more than healthy participants.
Women can have a lower pain tolerance than men. This might be because women have stronger sensory mechanisms that make them in tune with their senses at a higher level than men. This includes the senses surrounding pain.
According to researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville, healthy people who exercised showed a higher threshold for pain. If a person was already dealing with chronic pain, the results were mixed. In another study, individuals with painful diabetic neuropathy had increased pain while exercising.
How Can You Test Your Pain Tolerance?
It is difficult to gauge pain tolerance. Dolorimetry uses a dolorimeter to assess an individual’s pain tolerance and their pain threshold. This instrument will use pressure, heat, and electrical stimulation. The patient will then report their pain level.
Pain intensity scales can be used by physicians to understand a person’s pain level and how well pain treatments are working. They can also show changes in an individual's pain tolerance. Some of the more common questionnaires to determine pain tolerance include:
• Brief Pain Inventory Questionnaire
• McGill Pain Questionnaire
•Oswestry Disability Index Questionnaire
•Visual analog scale
•Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale
What Are the Most Painful Conditions?
Cluster headaches are rare, but they are characterized by their extreme intensity. They cause a pain that is so intense that they impair a person’s ability to go about daily activities. The pain will increase in intensity for between five to 10 minutes and can continue for up to three hours.
Shingles is a disease that affects the nerves. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It is also known as the virus that causes chickenpox. It is one of the most painful conditions known to man.
A bone fracture can cause severe pain and inflammation. The severity of the pain depends on the severity of the fracture and the bone broken.
This is the pain that radiates down to the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs from the hip to the feet. Sciatic pain can range from moderate to severe. It can be debilitating and prevent movement.
Pain is the body’s warning mechanism. While acute pain may serve a valuable purpose in warning of injury or danger, chronic pain can rob a person of their quality of life. There are benefits to having high pain tolerance, but it also comes with some risks. Thankfully, there are several techniques available to manage pain and reduce its impact on your life.
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Wondering if your parents’ high pain tolerance was passed down to you? Are you considering getting a tattoo, or preparing for a major surgery? Knowing just how much pain you can handle is important for many life decisions.
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