Pain Tolerance and Sensitivity

The pain management doctors at Site of the United States knows that pain tolerance can be a funny thing. Neck pain or a foot injury can be agony to one person while just a slight annoyance to another. Why does pain tolerance vary so much among us, and can we actually control pain tolerance?

There are actually two steps to feeling pain. The first is the biological step (the pricking of the skin or a headache coming on). These sensations signal the brain that the body is experiencing trouble. The second step is the brain’s perception of the pain. This is what divides us, as some shrug off these sensations and continue their activities while others stop everything and focus on what is hurting.

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Chronic pain actually changes the way the spinal cord, nerves, and brain process unpleasant stimuli causing hypersensitization, but the brain and emotions can moderate or intensify the pain. Even past experiences and trauma can influence a person’s sensitivity to pain.

Managing pain and people’s perceptions of their symptoms is a challenge. According to the American Pain Foundation, persistent pain is often reported by 30% of adults aged 45 to 64, 25% of adults aged 20 to 44, and 21% of adults aged 65 and older.

More women than men report pain (27.1% compared with 24.4%), although whether women actually tolerate pain better than men remains up for scientific debate.

Pain tolerance is influenced by people’s emotions, bodies, and lifestyles. But many different factors can influence pain tolerance, such as depression and anxiety, which can make a person more sensitive to pain, athletes who can withstand more pain than people who don’t exercise, and people who smoke or are obese who report more pain.

Biological factors, which include genetics, injuries such as spinal cord damage, and chronic diseases such as diabetes that cause nerve damage, can also shape how we interpret pain.

There are some surprising biological factors that may also play a role in pain tolerance. For example, recent research shows that one side of your body may experience pain differently than the other side.

A study published in the December 2009 issue of Neuroscience Letters showed that right-handed study participants could tolerate more pain in their right hands than in their left hands. This study also showed that women were more sensitive to pain than men, but women and men were equal in their ability to tolerate pain intensity.

A dominant hand—your right hand, if you’re right-handed, for example—may interpret pain more quickly and accurately than the nondominant hand, which may explain why the dominant side can endure longer. Hand dominance may also be linked to the side of your brain that interprets the pain, the researchers note.

Someone’s biological makeup can also affect whether he or she develops resistance to pain medicines, which means a treatment that once worked no longer eases the pain. While changing genetic receptors is not possible, nor is which hand you write with, there are coping mechanisms that can influence the brain’s perceptions of pain.

Researchers have focused on trying to alter the psychological interpretations of pain by retraining the mind and alternative remedies, such as relaxation techniques like biofeedback, teach people how to divert their mind from zeroing in on the pain. People can empower themselves by learning relaxation techniques, such as breathing practices during natural childbirth, Cope says. When it comes to pain, mind over matter can work.

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