The Truth About Pain Thresholds

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The Truth About Pain Thresholds


Pain. We all suffer pain at one stage or other – and I’m not talking about the emotional kind… well not for the moment at least…

No, whether it’s that demon dentist who attempted an extraction without sufficient anesthetic (“Oh, I’m really very sorry, I forgot to administer the 4th shot” – yes this has actually happened to me) or just a simple sprain, the majority of us have experienced a number of different types of pain in our lives.

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Pain Thresholds



But is it true that certain people experience more pain than others? Do some just put a brave face on it, or are there genetic predispositions to pain? In this article we’ll be looking to find that out, shattering illusions that men suffer more (man flu, ladies?) and that the ordeal of childbirth has resulted in women having significantly higher pain thresholds than men (not true – they are just hardcore).

Tolerance vs. Threshold

Before we get into the facts and figures, though, it’s important to point out the difference between pain threshold and pain tolerance. The former indicates the point at which pain can be felt, whereas the latter is all about the level of pain one can stomach. As such, there is a big difference between ‘feeling pain’ (where genetics and biology play a big part) and ‘handling pain’ (where psychology has a significant impact).

The Demographics of Pain

While the misconceptions surrounding pain thresholds are widespread, there is one theme that can’t be disputed: the role of demographics. That is to say age and sex certainly do influence how people perceive pain. According to a study by the American Pain Foundation, persistent pain was reported by 30% of adults aged 45-64, compared to 21% of adults aged 65 and older, dispelling the myth that as people get older, they experience more pain.

As for the great sex divide? It is women that report pain more often than their male counterparts, at a ratio of 27.1% to 24.4%. Indeed Dr Troels Jensen of the International Association for the Study of Pain insists, ‘chronic pain affects a higher proportion of women than men’. But is this down to genetic disposition or good old ‘mind-over matter’?

The Psychology of Pain

While women report more pain, could it be that men conform more to the ‘stiff upper lip’ stereotype? Certainly there is a certain machismo associated to tolerating pain, I myself preferring to grin and bear it than head straight to my local GP. And lead researcher and psychologist to the Pain Management Unit at the University of Bath, Ed Keogh, certainly goes along with that, citing that ‘it is becoming increasingly clear that social and psychological factors are also important [in the perception of pain]’.

In particular, Keogh thinks it’s these psychological factors that hold the answer to why pain tolerance for women is lower: ‘Our research has shown that, whilst the sensory-focused strategies used by men helped increase their pain threshold and tolerance of pain, it was unlikely to have any benefit for women… Women who concentrate on the emotional aspects of their pain may actually experience more pain as a result, possibly because the emotions associated with pain are negative’.

However, psychological factors can transcend gender. According to Martin Grabois, of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, ‘depression and anxiety can make a person more sensitive to pain’ – conditions that effect both sexes. Certainly then, it seems that the emotional element of pain referred to at the head of the article has a significant bearing on physical pain. And, therein lies a further clue to the difference in pain thresholds: hormones.

The Hormones of Pain

Aside from the demographic and psychological implications to pain management, it seems hormones can also play a pivotal role. This certainly adds further explanation as to why women appear to suffer more, as Dr. Beverly Collette, of the British Pain Society, points out, ‘we know that women’s pain threshold varies across the menstrual cycle. Postmenopausal women who take HRT tend to report more pain problems than other women’.

This certainly puts a nail into the coffin of the argument that female pain thresholds are inherently higher due to the pain of childbirth. In conclusion, it is apparent that the differences in pain threshold and tolerance are no myth. I will certainly be bearing that in mind next time I complain to my nearest and dearest about the insufferable nature of my latest bout of man flu!

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