Pain comes in many forms, whether it’s from a burn, joint ache, or throbbing headache. Your pain tolerance refers to the maximum amount of pain you can handle. This is different from your pain threshold.
Your pain threshold is the minimum point at which something, such as pressure or heat, causes you pain. For example, someone with a lower pain threshold might start feeling pain when only minimal pressure is applied to part of their body.
Pain tolerance and threshold varies from person to person. They both depend on complex interactions between your nerves and brain.
Read on to learn more about why some people have a higher pain tolerance and whether it’s possible to increase your own pain tolerance.
Feeling pain is an important experience. It can alert you to a potential illness or injury that needs to be addressed.
When you feel pain, nearby nerves send signals to your brain through your spinal cord. Your brain interprets this signal as a sign of pain, which can set off protective reflexes. For example, when you touch something very hot, your brain receives signals indicating pain. This in turn can make you quickly pull your hand away without even thinking.
Many things can influence the complex system of communication between your brain and body. These include:
- Genetics. Research suggests that your genes can affect how you perceive pain. Your genetics may also influence how you respond to pain medications.
- Age. Elderly individuals may have a higher pain threshold. More research is needed to understand why.
- Sex. For unknown reasons, females report longer-lasting and more severe pain levels than males do.
- Chronic illness. Over time, a chronic illness, such as migraines or fibromyalgia, can change your pain tolerance.
- Mental illness. Pain is more often reported in people with depression or panic disorder.
- Stress. Being under a lot of stress can make pain feel more severe.
- Social isolation. Social isolation may add to the experience of pain and decrease your pain tolerance.
- Past experience. Your previous experiences of pain can influence your pain tolerance. For example, people regularly exposed to extreme temperatures may have a higher pain tolerance than others. However, people who’ve had a bad experience at the dentist can have a strong pain response to even minor procedures at future visits.
- Expectations. Your upbringing and learned coping strategies can affect how you think you should feel or react to a painful experience.
Pain tolerance is often difficult to accurately measure. Experts have come up with several methods to measure it, though the methods’ reliability remains controversial. Here are some methods to test your pain tolerance:
Dolorimetry uses an instrument called a dolorimeter to assess pain threshold and pain tolerance. There are several types of instruments, depending on the type of stimulus it uses. Most dolorimeters apply heat, pressure, or electrical stimulation to parts of your body while you report your pain level.
Cold pressor method
The cold pressor test is one of the more popular ways to measure pain tolerance. It involves submerging your hand into a bucket of ice-cold water. You’ll tell whoever is administering the test when you start to feel pain. Your pain threshold is determined by the amount of time between the start of the test and your first report of pain.
Once the pain becomes unbearable, you can remove your hand. The time between the test start and when your remove your hand is considered your pain tolerance.
While this method is more popular than others, some experts question its reliability. It’s often hard to maintain constant water temperature. Even small differences in water temperature can have a major effect on pain intensity and tolerance time.
Pain intensity scales
Doctors also use written questionnaires or scales to help them understand someone’s pain level and how well certain pain treatments are working. They can also be used as an indicator of how a person’s pain tolerance changes over time.
Common questionnaires used to determine pain tolerance include:
- McGill Pain Questionnaire
- Brief Pain Inventory questionnaire
- Oswestry Disability Index questionnaire
- Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale
- visual analog scale
With a bit of work, you can try to change the way you perceive pain and even boost your pain tolerance.
Yoga mixes physical postures with breathing exercises, meditation, and mental training. A 2014 study found that people who regularly practice yoga could tolerate more pain than those who didn’t.
Participants who practiced yoga also appeared to have more gray matter in parts of the brain related to pain processing, pain regulation, and attention. Try it for yourself using our definitive guide to yoga for beginners and seasoned yogis.
Physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, can also raise pain tolerance and decrease pain perception.
One study, for example, found that a moderate to vigorous cycling program significantly increased pain tolerance. However, it had no effect on pain threshold.
Simply saying “ow” when you’re in pain can have very real effects on how you experience pain.
A 2015 study had participants do a cold pressor test. Some were asked to say “ow” as they submerged their hand, while others were instructed to do nothing. Those who vocalized their pain seemed to have a higher pain tolerance.
An earlier study found similar results when people cursed while doing a cold pressor test. They had a higher pain tolerance than those who said a neutral word.
Mental imagery refers to creating vivid images in your mind. For some people, this can be very useful for managing pain. There are many ways to do this.
The next time you’re in pain, try imagining your pain as a red, pulsating ball. Then, slowly shrink the ball in your mind and change it to a cool shade of blue.
You can also imagine that you’re in a nice, warm bath. Picture your body relaxing. Whatever imagery you use, try to be as detailed as you can for maximum benefit.
Biofeedback is a type of therapy that helps increase your awareness of how your body responds to stressors and other stimuli. This includes pain.
During a biofeedback session, a therapist will teach you how to use relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and mental exercises to override your body’s response to stress or pain.
Biofeedback is used to help treat a variety of psychological and physical conditions. These include chronic low back pain and muscle spasms.
The experience of pain is complex. While you can’t always change the source of your pain, there are ways you can alter your perception of pain. Just make sure you see a doctor if you have pain that’s getting worse or interfering with your day-to-day life.