What's Your Pain Tolerance?
Everyone struggles with pain at some point, but how you tolerate pain can be up to you.
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.
Getting Better at Handling Pain
A person's biological makeup can affect whether he or she develops resistance to pain medicines, which means a treatment that once worked no longer eases the pain. This can be a "vicious circle" to break, Serban says. "You use more treatment and become more tolerant and you become less active and have more pain."
We can't change our genetic receptors, and not even changing your hair color or which hand you write with can rewire your sensitivity to pain. However, 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. "You can change the perception [of pain] on the brain," Grabois says. "You haven't changed the perception on the nerves."
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. "Meditation, distraction, and a positive attitude are things people can do themselves to lessen pain," she says.