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Pain Management Health Center

What's Your Pain Tolerance?

Everyone struggles with pain at some point, but how you tolerate pain can be up to you.
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What Drives Your Pain Tolerance?

Pain tolerance is influenced by people's emotions, bodies, and lifestyles. Here are several factors that Grabois says can affect pain tolerance:

  • Depression and anxiety can make a person more sensitive to pain.
  • Athletes can withstand more pain than people who don't exercise.
  • People who smoke or are obese report more pain.

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

Your Sensitive Side

Some surprising biological factors 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 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.

Redheads More Sensitive to Pain?

Another surprising factor is that hair color may reflect pain tolerance. In 2009, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Dental Association showed that redheads were more sensitive to pain and may need more anesthesia for dental procedures.

Why redheads in particular? Redheads, the researchers say, tend to have a mutation in a gene called melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R), which is what helps make their hair red. MC1R belongs to a group of receptors that include pain receptors in the brain. The researchers suggest that a mutation in this particular gene appears to influence sensitivity to pain.

"We have different receptors for pain in our body, and those receptors respond differently, whether you're taking aspirin or acetaminophen," Stelian Serban, MD, director of acute and chronic inpatient pain service and an assistant professor of anesthesiology at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, tells WebMD.

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