A person’s pain tolerance refers to how much pain they can reasonably handle. Some people have a much higher pain tolerance than others.
The feeling of pain is the body’s natural response to uncomfortable stimuli it feels from the environment or elsewhere.
People with high pain tolerance may not feel some sensations as harshly as others. This may be helpful in some situations, but there are some risks attached.
Pain tolerance also plays a role in some conditions of chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia. There might also be some ways to increase pain tolerance for people whose tolerance is very low.
Keep reading to learn more about pain tolerance.
Pain tolerance refers to how much pain a person can reasonably handle. They still feel the sensation as painful, but the pain is tolerable.
A person with a high pain tolerance can deal with more pain than a person with an average or low pain tolerance.
The concept of ‘pain tolerance’ is different from a person’s ‘pain threshold.’
Pain threshold is the point at which a stimulus becomes painful. Pain threshold also varies from person to person.
A simple example of pain threshold would be a pinch that causes one person pain while having little or no effect on someone else.
In this example, pain tolerance would be the maximum number of pinches a person could reasonably withstand.
Another example would be temperature. The temperature at which heat or cold becomes painful would be a threshold, where the maximum temperature the person could withstand would be their tolerance.
How and why a person experiences pain can vary greatly, and the nature of how humans feel pain is complex. A number of factors influence an individual’s pain tolerance levels.
Genes may play a role in some types of pain. One review notes that researchers believe genetic factors play a role in up to 60% of responses to cold that lead to pain.
However, the study also notes that this varies greatly, depending on the type of pain and stimulus the person experiences.
Age may affect certain experiences of pain. As a simple example, a very young child will often have a much lower pain tolerance than an adult.
A number of other factors, such as hormones, physical and neuronal differences in males and females, and social factors seem to influence this difference.
Stress levels may influence other factors, leading to a person being on edge or expecting pain and other stressors.
The expectation of pain plays a role in how people feel pain, as well. A person who expects higher pain may feel pain more intensely when it arrives.
Experience of pain
A person’s previous experiences with a type of pain can also shape how they experience pain in the future. Temperature is an example of this fact.
Moving to a very hot or very cold climate, a person may feel these temperature extremes in a harsh way. After living in these conditions for a long time, they will likely adjust to these temperatures.
Past experiences can also influence expectations. If a person remembers a painful experience, they may be expecting a similar pain in the future, making the experience more painful if it happens again.
Mental health issues
Chronic illnesses that cause pain may also lead to a type of hypersensitivity. People with chronic pain may become very sensitive to that type of pain, effectively reducing their pain tolerance.
Some other factors may interact with how the body feels pain. This may include the drugs a person takes, severe lack of sleep or insomnia, or lifestyle choices, such as smoking.
People with especially low pain tolerance may want to find ways to increase that pain tolerance.
There may be some ways to increase pain tolerance. These may not cause drastic changes in how a person experiences pain, but over time may increase how much pain a person can handle.
Regular aerobic exercise, resistance training, and even circuit training may increase pain tolerance in otherwise healthy people.
People with underlying conditions may also benefit from exercise. A study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development notes that exercise increased markers for pain tolerance in people with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The researchers recommend exercise as a complementary treatment for these issues.
Regularly practicing yoga may make a person more aware of their mind and body, and may decrease some responses to pain.
A review in Complementary Therapies in Medicine notes that people who regularly practice yoga have a higher pain tolerance. Yoga also appears to reduce mental factors of pain, such as the anxiety and distress they associate with the pain itself.
Biofeedback aims to bring awareness to the body and mind, as well as to how a person reacts to stimuli, such as pain.
Working with a therapist, different biofeedback practices may help increase a person’s awareness of pain and gain control over their response.
Methods of biofeedback that may help include mental imaging, breathing exercises, and specific awareness tools or drawing the attention to specific points in the body.
Simple vocalizations, such as saying “ow” or making a noise when hurt, may be a part of a natural response to pain. They may also help the pain to a degree.
A study in the Journal of Pain found that saying “ow” after experiencing painfully cold water increased pain tolerance, meaning the person could withstand cold water longer.
While high pain tolerance may be useful in some situations, it also carries risks.
Pain is a critical reaction in the body, giving a person warning about potentially harmful or dangerous stimuli in the environment.
A very high pain tolerance or even an inability to feel pain can be dangerous. A person may not realize a hot pan is burning them or may injure their body without fully being aware of the extent of the injury.
People with very high pain tolerance may require regular checkups with doctors plus imaging tests to be certain they are not hurt and unaware of it.
Pain is a highly complex, individualized experience. Even with the methods of testing pain, it is still a difficult experience to accurately rate.
Some things may make a lower pain tolerance more likely, such as past experience with specific pain.
For instance, people who have painful experiences at the dentist may have an aversion to this type of pain. When they return to the dentist, they may feel the pain even more, as they are remembering their negative experiences.
Pain is a highly individual experience, and how each person experiences and tolerates pain will vary and depend on many different factors.
People with low pain tolerance may find that certain exercises and practices help control their reaction to pain, thus increasing their tolerance.
Anyone worried about their very low pain tolerance may want to see a doctor to discuss other therapeutic options.