If asked, you could probably describe your pain tolerance by giving examples of things that would push you over the edge. You are probably aware that some people you know have a higher pain threshold than you. Others have a lower threshold. Have you ever wondered why that is?
Pain is a natural biological signal that something is wrong. It acts as a warning to prevent further damage from an already harmful circumstance. As an example, the pain you would feel from touching a hot stove does two things: it tells you that you are burning your skin and it warns you to pull your hand away before more damage is done.
As to why some people tolerate pain better than others, the science is not fully settled. It seems as though there are a number of contributing factors, all of which are subject to individual experience.
Pain tolerance is not a completely genetic thing. Nor do genetics necessarily play a major role in how much pain a person can tolerate. But studies suggest there is a genetic component, nonetheless. A Dutch study published in 2015 points to genetic factors as indicators in as many as 60% of pain sufferers. However, the study acknowledges that people experience pain differently.
Age and Experience
When talking about individual pain thresholds, the word ‘tolerance’ becomes particularly important. Tolerance to anything can be built up over time – with enough practice. As such, age and experience seem to contribute to pain tolerance levels. Older people tend to be able tolerate pain more than younger people.
Experience also plays a role in pain tolerance by way of relationships between past and future events. For example, a person who moves to Florida after decades of living in the Northeast might find the sun almost painful the first one or two summers in the Sunshine State. The sun never felt so hot up north. After a few years of adjusting to the southern climate, that same person might find cold northern temperatures unbearable during the winter.
Expectations of Pain
What we think about pain can affect how we perceive it during the actual experience. If you are expecting a medical procedure to be extremely painful, for example, you are likely to perceive it as such when it occurs. The same is true in the other direction. People who do not expect to experience significant pain are less likely to.
It would be impossible to talk about pain tolerance without mentioning health issues. Both physical and mental health problems can affect how a person perceives pain. People suffering from depression and anxiety are a good example. They tend to have a lower tolerance for pain.
Certain types of chronic illnesses may cause a hypersensitivity to pain as well. Fibromyalgia is one example. Psoriasis is another. When mental and physical health problems are experienced together, they can change a patient’s perception of pain significantly.
Treating Chronic Pain
A person’s pain tolerance level is often an indicator of whether or not treatment is sought for chronic pain. According to the doctors at Lone Star Pain Medicine in Weatherford, Texas, a patient’s perception of pain can contribute to whether or not said pain is considered chronic. When pain is chronic, doctors have a number of treatment tools to work with.
The question often boils down to how much pain patients should expect to experience before seeking treatment. This ties in to how much pain an individual can tolerate. Some people experience chronic pain that never require treatment. Others seek treatment from the first onset.