Low Pain Threshold? Here's Why

Your gender, your stress level, and your genes all contribute to your sensitivity to pain.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 03, 2010
2 min read

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.

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!"

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.