pain tolerance

Why Do People Tolerate Pain Differently?

Imagine the moment the very first fire was lit. The caveman went to touch it – and immediately pulled his hand away. That self-preservation pathway is so fast, almost instantaneous, says Dr. Erin Waychoff, D.C., co-owner of Pain Stop North Phoenix with her husband, Clinic Director Dr. Pierce Waychoff, D.C.

When the finger touches the fire:

  1. The nerves in the finger send a message through the nerves in the spinal cord up to the brain.
  2. The brain interprets the message and immediately sends the signal back to the finger.

These are the two steps required to feel pain – and to let you know you need to get your finger out of the fire.

Dr. Erin Waychoff, D.C. says the pathway from the source of the pain to the brain and back is the same for everybody. And experiencing pain is a normal response. The body is working, as it should.

But how pain is perceived is not universal.

In their practice, the Waychoffs have seen that pain is definitely tolerated differently among their patients. Science Daily references brain imaging that confirms some individuals really are more sensitive to pain. Researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found that those with higher pain intensity ratings had less grey matter in the brain.

The perception of pain

Dr. Waychoff, D.C., says that people living with chronic pain tend to be able to tolerate the pain and continue with activities of daily living despite it. “It’s like they’ve had practice. But if you’re not used to pain, you’re more sensitive when it happens.”

Pain tolerance is the maximum amount of pain someone is willing or able to endure. Pain tolerance is affected by many factors, according to the Human Performance Resource Center, including:

  • Genetics
  • Expectations
  • Hormones
  • Stress
  • Gender
  • Whether you’re a redhead
  • Cultural differences
  • Psychological differences

According to the American Pain Foundation, persistent pain was reported by 30 percent of adults aged 45-64. Pain might be on the rise in the United States because increasing age, with two-thirds of the population being overweight or obese.

A closer look

Psychology might explain pain tolerance as a result of “mind over matter,” such as among those living with chronic pain. In fact, some people can even control their reaction to pain consciously. Dovetailing psychology are cultural differences, such as whether a child is cuddled and comforted or taught to “tough it out” early on.

The genetic connection to pain is complex, although several clinical pain conditions have shown a familial link, including arthritis, fibromyalgia irritable bowel syndrome and migraine. And researchers believe redheads are more sensitive to pain because of a mutation in a gene that affects hair color. That gene is also related to pain receptors in the brain.

The gender influence is still up for scientific debate. Some studies indicate men handle pain better – especially when they’re not alone and might feel they have to prove themselves. WebMD reports that more women than men report pain (27.1% compared with 24.4%), but that they recover from pain more quickly and are less likely to allow pain to control their lives. The hormones estrogen and progesterone are believed to play a role in the now widely accepted belief that the genders handle pain differently.

It’s not completely clear yet how stress and pain are related. However, stressed-out people often experience neck, shoulder and back pain. This could be due to the link between stress and muscle tension or related to brain chemicals.

The Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center study also shed interesting light on expectations and pain, documenting the brain’s reaction when the pain felt was worse than what the patient was told it would be.

Clearly, there’s still much to be learned.

But with an estimated $100 billion cost annually in health care, lost income and lost productivity, why suffer? Contact Pain Stop North Phoenix for a free consultation today. Dr. Pierce Waychoff, D.C. evaluates every patient and orchestrates a personalized treatment plan with the goal of getting to the root cause of the pain – and not just masking symptoms.

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