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Why do people have different pain tolerances?

Pain tolerance : How much can you take?

Pain tolerance is the maximum amount of pain someone can tolerate. Researchers often test for pain tolerance using a similar standard: the cold pressor test (CPT). During a CPT, a person immerses her/his hand in cold water. Researchers note the time when pain is felt and when pain is no longer bearable. This time test gives them a good idea of how much pain the person can tolerate.

And guess what? We all have a different tolerance for pain. But why are some people pain resistant and stoics while others are wimps? And are people with a lower pain tolerance are higher risk of drinking or taking drugs

Different levels of tolerance for pain : Why?

Experts do not yet agree on why we have different levels of pain tolerance. However, there are three main possible causes, and perhaps is it a combination of these factors which result in the range of more and less pain sensitive people.

1. Inborn, genetic differences
2. Psychological differences
3. Cultural differences
4. Gender differences

Genetic pain tolerance – In terms of genes, if you get a certain genetic variation (a val allele of the val158met polymorphism) from both parents, you get a strong COMT enzyme that metabolizes dopamine, resulting in more pain relief. And if you get a met allele from both parents, your pain sensitivity is high. And if you get one val allele and one met allele, your pain tolerance is somewhere in between the two ranges.

Pain tolerance and psychology – Additionally, psychology might explain pain tolerance as a result of “mind over matter.” In fact, some people can even control their reaction to pain consciously. People can increase pain tolerance a number of ways. Some examples include stimulating positive emotions to override negative emotions during stressful situations, suppressing pain via distraction, or by training and conditioning the mind to focus attention elsewhere can help minimize pain.

Social and cultural learning related to pain tolerance – A person’s individual reaction to pain is also subject to cultural influences. Training about how to should respond to pain and discomfort, or what is socially appropriate can influence pain tolerance. And these learned behaviors can transfer to gender differences and how we expect men and women to react to pain. So although research supports the existence of sex differences in pain (men can take more pain for longer than women); social learning may be a stronger influence on pain response than biological mechanisms.

Can low pain tolerance lead to drug use?

Yes and no. Drug dependence and pain perception share common neuro-anatomical and neuro-physiological processes. And research has shown that psychoactive drug users experience decreased pain tolerance. In other words, people who take drugs have a low tolerance for pain. But does this mean that if you have a low tolerance for pain that you will turn to drugs or become a drug addict?


If you have a low tolerance for pain, pain killers and pain medications can really help you. But if you have been prescribed and are taking pain medications as prescribed, your body may become dependent on them, but not your mind. Although it is true that many drug addicts look to drugs to relieve pain (either physical or emotional), not all people who take drugs become addicted to them. If you would like to know the difference, check out the top 10 signs of pain pill addiction here .

Reference sources: The gene for pain tolerance
Gender role expectations of pain
Wiki on pain tolerance
Wiki on cold pressor test

Photo credit: Naturally Alise [dot] com

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3 Responses to “Why do people have different pain tolerances?
Madeline Holland
4:06 am October 1st, 2012

This is a question. Do some people simply not get very much pain – as opposed to having a high tolerance for pain? I have had open heart surgery – for removal of a myxoma – and both knee and shoulder replacement surgeries. In all three of these surgeries I had almost no pain. I had some discomfort – such as the chest tubes and the esophageal tube. And I had some temporary pain during the physical therapy that followed the knee and shoulder replacements. I know that I can have pain, but I seem to experience very little.

2:07 pm October 17th, 2012

Hello Madeline. Well, thank goodness also for the anesthetics that modern science has created! Without these, surgery would not be a humane event!

I don’t really know the answer to your question, to be honest. Have you tried consulting a pain specialist about it? Are you worried that there may be some trouble in the central nervous system? Or are you just curious? It seems likely that with age comes some normal deterioration of the nerves which transmit and communicate pain. But perhaps the dulled sensation of pain is a problem in your case?

7:46 am October 19th, 2016

Thanks for the information, helped me out a lot!