Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Women's Health

Font Size

Low Pain Threshold? Here's Why

Your gender, your stress level, and your genes all contribute to your sensitivity to pain.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Everything seems to hurt Jovi Craig. When she recently had a cervical biopsy, a relatively minor in-office procedure, she says she "was literally crying and gripping the table in pain," despite taking the painkillers her doctor had prescribed.

Friends sometimes make light of Craig’s sensitivity to pain, and even some doctors she’s seen have been dismissive. But the 33-year-old communications manager from Newark, Calif., is not a wimp; some people really do feel more pain than others.

WebMD the Magazine Now Available Online

promo_aia_digimag.jpg The enormous popularity of WebMD the Magazine – previously only read in your doctor's office – is why we're proud to announce the release of WebMD the Magazine Digital Edition.

In each edition, you will get
these features:
  • Expert beauty tips
  • Healthy recipes
  • Celebrity health stories
  • And much more!

Women and Pain

Her gender may hold a key. A 2002 study showed a difference in women’s and men’s pain thresholds. 

According to one of the researchers on that study, William Maixner, PhD, DDS, director of the Center for Neurosensory Disorders at the University of North Carolina, when the body is injured, it releases a flood of pain-relieving substances, notably beta endorphins, a natural opioid. 

But many women’s bodies release fewer beta endorphins than men’s bodies do, Maixner says. Fewer natural painkillers can translate to more pain for women from the same injury -- although, interestingly, women's threshold for pain gets higher when they're giving birth.

This difference may have evolved, Maixner speculates, because beta endorphins dull all of the five senses. If his theory is right, it could explain studies that show women are more likely to develop conditions such as migraine headaches and to suffer more acutely after an operation. Individual differences seem to be due to genetic variations, Maixner says.

Also, pain thresholds fluctuate. Stress and pain go together, and researchers have found that life events, such as the death of a close friend or family member or job loss, can increase sensitivity to pain. On the other hand, a heightened sensitivity to the daily bumps and bruises of life can make you more stressed out -- and even more thin-skinned.

Craig is learning to deal with her low pain threshold by being upfront with her doctors, practicing deep breathing, and listening to meditation tapes when she undergoes a procedure. But she wishes others would realize she’s not overreacting. She says, "If I could control it, believe me, I would!"

Help Yourself

If you have a low pain threshold, try these strategies to reduce the toll it takes on you, says Maixner:

Speak up. Inform your doctor or other medical professionals ahead of time that you’re highly sensitive to pain, so they can take extra measures during procedures and provide appropriate relief afterward.

Relax. Deep breathing can reduce the production of epinephrine, a chemical that increases sensitivity to pain. Try Jovi Craig’s tactic of listening to relaxing music before, during, and after procedures to stay calm.

Train. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn coping skills.

Reviewed on August 03, 2010

Today on WebMD

woman looking in mirror
Article
Woman resting on fitness ball
Evaluator
 
woman collapsed over laundry
Quiz
Public restroom door sign
Slideshow
 
Couple with troubles
Article
Bone density illustration
VIDEO
 
Young woman being vaccinated
Slideshow
woman holding hand to ear
Slideshow
 
Blood pressure check
Slideshow
mother and daughter talking
Evaluator
 
intimate couple
Article
puppy eating
Slideshow