For every person who complains of severe pain at the slightest cut or scratch, there is another who can undergo a full root canal without so much as a topical anesthetic. Why is that? Why is it that some people seem to have a higher pain threshold than others?
The perception of pain is both a biological and psychological function. Therefore, determining why pain thresholds are different from one person to the next requires looking at both factors. Even then, a lot of what medical science believes about pain perception is speculation.
Pain As a Biological Response
From a biological standpoint, pain is a physical response to something gone wrong in the body. The brain understands pain thanks to signals it receives from pain receptors. Furthermore, there are different types of pain receptors that respond to different stimuli. Those that respond to a burn are different from those that respond to a cut.
The chronic pain page on the Utahmarijuana.org website explains that a small segment of the population is lacking in pain receptors. Whether that means complete or partial lack is unclear. Either way, it is well documented that pain receptor volume can vary from one person to the next. This suggests that people with fewer pain receptors are likely to have a higher pain threshold.
Another biological feature to consider is the central nervous system. Our nervous systems don’t all react the same way to every stimulus. So where there are differences in nervous system reactions, people can experience pain differently.
Psychological Responses to Pain
Understanding pain perception from a biological standpoint is easy compared to understanding it from a psychological standpoint. Pain experts generally recognize five psychological factors that influence pain perception:
1. Personality Traits
Personality traits play into pain perception based on how a person interacts with others. It is believed that those who are highly empathetic tend to have a lower threshold, especially when they don’t receive the empathy they expect from others. Likewise, people whose personalities are more introspective (think loners here) may have a higher pain threshold because they have less need for empathy.
2. Cognitive Traits
What a person thinks about pain probably affects their pain threshold. The cognitive aspects of pain perception suggests that a person who expects to experience severe pain during some future event probably will. The opposite is also true. As an extension of that, people who have a tendency to exaggerate their thoughts may have a lower pain threshold because their thought patterns exaggerate the perception of pain.
3. Belief Systems
What a person believes about pain and its treatment can influence perception. This is proved by multiple studies involving standard pain treatments versus placebos. If a person believes a treatment will reduce pain, that person’s threshold for pain may increase due to the placebo effect.
4. Cultural Variables
Though science does not give a definitive explanation as to why, studies have concluded that cultural variables contribute to pain tolerance. Variables can be specific to city neighborhoods or as broad as entire regions of the country.
5. Learned Behavior
Last but not least is learned behavior. It is believed that many people develop their pain tolerance based partially on what they learn from those around them. This suggests that people can be taught to deal more effectively with pain, thereby increasing their tolerance.
There is so much about pain that medical science still cannot explain. We know that some people seem to have a higher pain threshold than others. We just aren’t sure why that is.