Why do some people suffer from pain more than others? The answer can be found in understanding the terms “pain tolerance” and “pain threshold,” which can also help us understand how to better manage pain.
What Is the Difference Between Pain Tolerance and Pain Threshold?
Pain threshold is the minimum intensity at which a person begins to perceive, or sense, a stimulus as being painful. Pain tolerance, is the maximum amount, or level, of pain a person can tolerate or bear.
For example, when listening to a sound, the level of loudness, or pressure, at which the sound becomes painful is described as the pain threshold for that person at that time. The pain threshold varies by person, often based upon the frequency, and it can be age-dependent. A frequency can be irritating to a teenager, but not bother a person in their 50s. Furthermore, people exposed to loud noise (or music) usually develop a higher threshold of pain, typically because of hearing loss.
Another example is temperature. The temperature at which something hot or cold becomes painful is the pain threshold for that person at that time. As with sound, a person’s pain threshold may be different at different times in life. The pain threshold for hot and cold temperatures can be age-dependent, and people regularly exposed to extreme temperatures may gradually increase their tolerance resulting in a lower pain threshold.
The threshold for pain can differ between men and women, and can fluctuate based on many other factors.
Why can two people have the exact same physical condition, and the pain be merely an annoyance for one while sheer agony for the other?
Several studies have found pain is as unique as the individual. An American Pain Society study discovered differences in patient biological, psychological and sociocultural factors can cause vast differences in post-operative pain. A New Zealand study found cultural differences influenced pain perception between study participants. Other studies reinforce findings that biological, psychological, and emotional factors can all impact how similar pain is perceived by different individuals.
The mind and emotions can either moderate or intensify pain; however, chronic pain can cause hypersensitization. Doctors know chronic pain changes the way the spinal cord, nerves, and brain process unpleasant stimuli. Past experiences, as well as trauma, can influence a person’s sensitivity and perception of pain.
Pain researchers believe regular exposure to painful stimuli can increase one’s pain tolerance. Some individuals learn to handle pain by becoming more conditioned to it. However, there is also evidence to support the theory that repeated exposure to pain can make a person respond more vigorously to minor pain in the future.
Dangers of High Pain Tolerance
Having a high pain tolerance is not necessarily a good thing, because it can result in patients not feeling, or ignoring, their body’s warning signals that something is wrong.
For example, people who are less sensitive to pain may be at increased risk of having a “silent” heart attack, because they do not notice the classic symptoms of a heart attack.
Though a high tolerance for pain can be good in many ways, people with a high pain tolerance must be vigilant to pay attention to their bodies, because even a perceived discomfort can be a signal of a major health issue.
Is It Possible to Change Your Pain Tolerance?
Yes, studies suggest that people can change their pain tolerance by modifying their perception of pain. For example, athletes learn to “embrace the pain” to push themselves to perform at a higher level.
Perhaps everyone has experienced an occasion when they forgot about pain for a while, because they were busy and their mind was distracted. In a similar way, we can learn how to distract our mind and change our perception of pain.
Alternative pain treatment such as relaxation techniques and biofeedback can teach people how to divert their mind from pain. And in more severe cases, treatments like spinal stimulation can be used to trick the brain into feeling a tingling sensation rather than the pain, so patients do not have to reply on medication for pain relief.
Furthermore, there are many conditions that increase sensitivity to pain. So if these conditions can be reduced or eliminated, you can increase your pain tolerance.
Things That Increase Pain
There are many activities and conditions that can result in feeling pain more strongly. Here are a few of the common factors that can contribute to feeling an increased amount of pain. If a pain sufferer can reduce or eliminate these contributing factors, their pain may decrease.
Stress affects the body’s ability to modulate pain, in part because of the physical and emotional effects it has on the body. Stress can also contribute to anxiety and depression, which can result in a lower pain tolerance.
Trouble sleeping diminishes pain tolerance. According to a Norwegian study published in the journal PAIN, participants experiencing insomnia more than once a week had a significantly lower pain tolerance than those who had no trouble sleeping.
Depression affects pain, but it is not clear why depression manifests itself as physical pain. One study found people suffering from depression had significantly more frequent, intense, and unpleasant pain complaints than healthy participants.
Certain drugs may cause pain, and even increase pain, instead of alleviating it. Opioids like Oxycontin and Vicodin can do more harm than good in some cases, because the body becomes tolerant of, and dependent on, the drug.
Genes play an important part in determining one’s sensitivity to pain. Thank your parents if you have the gene that blocks BH4, a chemical in your body that increases pain sensitivity. If your body naturally blocks BH4, you are less sensitive to pain, and have a reduced risk for chronic pain, according to the Harvard University Gazette.
A study finds women experience more pain after surgery than men. And, a 2002 study by the Center for Neurosensory Disorders at the University of North Carolina found females have a lower pain threshold than males. The reason is the female body releases fewer natural painkillers (beta endorphins) than the male body.
Your brain’s wiring could be an indicator for your threshold of pain. One study reveals a correlation between a person’s sensitivity to pain and the thickness of the cortex in the brain. Other studies show that less gray matter in the brain can also be a link to higher pain sensitivity.
Following exercise, otherwise healthy individuals had a higher threshold for pain, according to researchers at the University of Florida-Gainesville. However, people already suffering from chronic pain experienced mixed results, depending on the pain conditions.
Novus Spine & Pain Center
Novus Spine & Pain Center is in Lakeland, Florida, and specializes in pain management. We use a comprehensive approach and cutting edge therapies to reduce pain, while working together with patients to restore function and regain an active lifestyle.
Pain Threshold and Tolerance Resources
Threshold of Pain (Wikipedia)
Low Pain Threshold? Here’s Why (WebMD)
Pain Tolerance (Wikipedia)
High Pain Tolerance Tied to ‘Silent’ Heart Attack Risk (WebMD)
What’s Your Pain Tolerance? (WebMD)
Pain Tolerance May Increase With Regular Exercise (MedicalNewsToday.com)
9 Things that Lower Your Pain Tolerance (Grandparents.com)