Pain tolerance and threshold varies from person to person. They both depend on complex interactions between your nerves and brain.
Pain comes in many forms, whether it’s from a burn, joint ache, or throbbing headache. Pain tolerance refers to the maximum amount of pain you can handle. This is different from your pain threshold. That is the minimum point at which something, such as pressure or heat, causes you pain. For example, someone with a lower pain threshold might start feeling pain when only minimal pressure is applied to a part of their body.
The real question is- can we improve our pain tolerance and learn how to better live with our pain on a daily basis? As providers, we help patients deal with pain in a variety of ways- medications, physical therapy, injections, topical creams or patches, are a few examples. Here are ideas on how to improve it naturally:
This may sound nearly impossible if you are already in pain, but the more you move, the easier it will be to keep moving. When a muscle is not used for long periods of time, it can stiffen up and cause pain and discomfort. Not sure where to start? Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous – if you’re able, recruit a friend or family member to take a walk outdoors. Walking is low-impact, but comes with great benefits to your entire body. Bonus: getting outside has been proven to increase endorphins- your body’s natural painkillers. Walking with a pet or friend also allows you time to connect, making it more enjoyable. If you need some fitness ideas, check out my exercises, posted every Tuesday.
I’m sure by now we’ve all heard of yoga, but there’s a reason it has become so popular lately. Benefits of yoga include increased flexibility, stronger bones and joints, and heightened mental clarity. When performing yoga, yogis are encouraged to clear their minds, connect with their breath, and focus on alignment. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be able to twist yourself up like a pretzel in order to enjoy these benefits. Check out the AARP summary on simple poses and breathing techniques for 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and beyond . There’s even wheelchair yoga! Just make sure to clear it with your provider first.
Have you ever noticed how everything seems to become more painful when we are cold? If we are chilly, we tend to curl up – hunching our shoulders, tensing muscles, and avoiding movement. Staying still will only decrease your body temperature. To combat this, try dressing in layers, keeping a space heater in a small room of your home to trap some warmth, and apply a heating pad or hot water bottle to areas that are especially painful. I actually turned to a heating blanket a few years ago. It keeps my entire body toasty while saving heating bills in the winter. Exercising, indoors or outdoors, even if it’s just strolling the neighborhood, is another wonderful way to warm up naturally.
Take a Bath:
Along with daily exercises this is the single best way I’ve learned to ease my pain. I even take one before stretching in the morning to loosen up achy muscles after being in bed all night. Then another after a long day at work. At night if pain keeps me up, its the first thing I turn to. It benefits all ages and provides time to meditate, read a book, listen to music, or catch up on emails, which can work to reduce stress and decrease pain further. Add Epsom salt to your bath water for its additional detoxifying and pain relieving properties. I use those that are Lavender scented to relax even more. If safety is an issue, look into getting a free home assessment on how to make your bath tub more accessible. It may be more affordable than you think.
Whether taking a walk or simply sitting on your porch, enjoying time in nature has a great deal of proven benefits to overall well-being. There’s something inherently healing about spending time outdoors. Part of it has to do with exposure to natural light. One study found people exposed to 46 percent more sunlight after surgery used 22 percent less pain medication per hour. According to research in Biopsychosocial Medicine adults who spend more time outdoors have less pain, sleep better and have less functional decline in their ability to carry out their daily activities. Spending time outside also allows you to connect with nature – a great stress-reliever that can also help increase your body’s level of pain-fighting endorphins.
Water affects every cell and system in our bodies. Many chronic pains can be caused or made worse by dehydration. Without sufficient water, we lose a great deal of flexibility as joints become stiff and tight. Likewise, when chronically dehydrated, the body reduces histamines in an attempt to retain whatever water it has, which can lead to increased inflammation- a major cause of pain. Aim to drink at least 64 oz. of water each day. Room temperature or warm water is more easily absorbed by your body (and helps keep your core temperature up) increasing the beneficial effects.
Sleep gives our bodies the time it needs for restoration. It is when our body provides proper hydration to joints, balances hormone levels, and increases our overall pain threshold. It makes sense – when we’re not well rested, we can become cranky and more easily irritated by minor aches and pains. However, if you are already experiencing pain, this may make it difficult to sleep through the night. Many of the previous tips, such as exercising, getting outside, and taking a warm bath before bed can help improve sleep quality.
As Hippocrates once said, “All disease begins in the gut.” It turns out, more and more research is confirming that what we eat has a huge impact on all aspects of our physical well-being. Making a few easy changes in diet can help reduce chronic pain levels. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables, increase your intake of Omega-3’s, most commonly found in salmon and other fish, as they reduce inflammation and improve brain function; add spices already discussed. Reduce carbohydrates – eating products such as bread and pasta cause the blood sugar to spike, then crash, causing stress on all bodily systems. Avoid or limit consumption of chemical sweeteners and additives, such as aspartame found in diet soda. Some of these chemicals have been shown to increase pain sensitivity, among a host of other negative side effects such as contributing to weight gain and depression.
Simply saying “ow” when you’re in pain can have very real effects on how you experience pain. A 2015 study had participants do a cold-pressor test -one of the more popular ways to measure pain tolerance. It involves submerging your hand into a bucket of ice-cold water. You’ll tell whoever is administering the test when you start to feel pain. Your pain threshold is determined by the amount of time between the start of the test and your first report of pain. Some were asked to say “ow” as they submerged their hand, while others were instructed to do nothing. Those who vocalized their pain seemed to have a higher pain tolerance. An earlier study found similar results when people cursed while doing a cold-pressor test. They had a higher pain tolerance than those who said a neutral word. So when alone, let loose!
Mental imagery refers to creating vivid images in your mind. For some people, this can be very useful for managing pain. There are many ways to do this. The next time you’re in pain, try imagining your pain as a red, pulsating ball. Then, slowly shrink the ball in your mind and change it to a cool shade of blue. You can also imagine that you’re in a nice, warm bath. Picture your body relaxing while floating in the soothing water. Or take deep breaths, with each inhalation, visualize the pain, then release it as you exhale. Whatever imagery you use, try to be as detailed as you can for maximum benefit.
Social isolation may add to the experience of pain and decrease your pain tolerance. It’s true- getting out with friends and family can improve your pain tolerance. Alone we tend to focus more on what hurts, distractions always help. So next time you have plans, don’t cancel, you’ll feel better in the long run.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about stress and how it relates to pain. But we all know the more stress in our lives, the worse our pain. There’s no question the weekends are much more tolerable than long work days, no matter how much I love what I do. Having the time, even if it’s just a few hours to rest, relax and take time for me can make all the difference.
Past experience of pain can influence your pain tolerance. For example, studies have shown that people regularly exposed to extreme temperatures may have a higher pain tolerance than others. However, people who’ve had a bad experience at the dentist can have a strong pain response to even minor procedures at future visits. Expectations also play a role. Upbringing and learned coping strategies can affect how you think you should feel or react to a painful experience.
The experience of pain is complex. While you can’t always change the source of your pain, there are ways you can alter your perception of pain. I have no doubt the suggestions above can make an impact in reducing daily struggles with pain. I know they do for me.