Updated: Mar 20, 2019
Raising the pain threshold decreases the likelihood of a painful flare-up occurring.
The pain threshold is the point at which a stimulus activates pain receptors, producing a sensation of pain. The term also refers to the point at which inflammation occurs.
People with higher pain thresholds can withstand more pressure, or more extreme temperatures, before experiencing pain. People with lower pain thresholds experience pain when exposed to less pressure and more moderate temperatures. Lower thresholds are more common in patients suffering from fibromyalgia, arthritis, and inflammatory conditions. This is one reason why fibromyalgia diagnosis includes the tender-point test. This is also why some people are triggered into flare-ups more often than others.
Being aware of your personal pain threshold is important. For those with inflammatory conditions, noticing when the body is more sensitive to pressure or temperature can help monitor progress and warn the body when a flare-up is likely to occur.
The two major factors in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory conditions are pain threshold and trigger load.
What is the Trigger Load?
Trigger load refers to the number of factors which, when too high, cause a painful occurrence, or a flare-up. Keeping the trigger load low and the pain threshold high will prevent flare-ups from occurring.
Triggers are anything that induces inflammation: foods, emotional extremes, stress, environmental irritants, traumatic occurrences, pharmaceuticals, or anything that is put in the body. To learn more about trigger load, check out How to Identify and Eliminate Triggers.
The pain threshold, however, has less to do with elimination and more to do with lifestyle and self-care. The pain threshold is highest when the body is in it’s healthiest state, the mind is at ease, and there is a emotional experience of happiness and wellbeing.
No, I’m not here only to tell you to eat vegetables and be happy :)
How to Expand the Pain Threshold:
Move Your Body Every Day: People who practice exercise regularly tend to have a higher pain threshold. Exercise is not an option for some. Regular, gentle movement will also increase resistance to triggers.
Quit Smoking: Non-smokers have a higher pain tolerance and are less likely to experience inflammation.
Pay Attention to Hormones: Hormonal imbalances are often associated with inflammatory conditions. Having your doctor routinely check hormone levels is a good way to monitor progress. Beware of foods that alter hormones like nightshades, meats, and soy products. Eat foods that encourage healthy hormone balance like seaweeds, avocados, and leafy greens. Women report higher pain threshold during midcycle and ovulatory phase, and lower pain threshold during premenstrual and menstrual phase. Prepare for cyclical hormonal changes by getting adequate rest and nutrition.
Avoid Overstimulating: Mental overload, overthinking, and even simply operating in beta-state can increase the pain threshold. Beta-state is when the brain operates at higher frequencies (hyperawareness, critical thinking, problem solving, worry, stress). Although necessary for human functionality, our bodies are more sensitive to triggers while operating in beta frequencies. Your brain switches down to alpha state when you relax and the threshold increases.
Practice Emotional Control: Sadness, depression, and anxiety are associated with lower pain thresholds. Peacefulness, calm, and loving feelings result in a higher pain threshold. When unwanted emotions occur, actively practice turning them into peaceful ones.
Nourish Yourself with Food Medicine: Nutritional insufficiency will undoubtedly result in a lower pain threshold. In fact, nutritional insufficiency might be the main cause of a low pain threshold. It is important that anyone experiencing chronic pain or inflammation make sure they are getting sufficient vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
Get Adequate Sleep: Not having enough sleep will decrease trigger resistance. Having peaceful and restful sleep, preferably in accordance with the body's natural circadian rhythm, will raise the pain threshold and help prevent flare-ups.
Drink Water All Day: Adequate hydration is important for maximizing the pain threshold. The rule of thumb is to drink two-thirds of your weight (lbs) in ounces. If you weigh 150lbs, you should drink 100oz (12.5 cups or about 3 liters) of water per day. Remember that coffee, tea, and other drinks have dehydrating properties. So drinking extra coffee will actually dehydrate you.
Quit Caffeine: Speaking of coffee, caffeine consumption is linked to higher pain perception and lower pain threshold. What is even more dangerous is that it has a rebound effect, meaning it can temporarily relieve pain by constricting blood vessels, only to have delayed, and even more severe, onset of pain occur later when blood floods the vessels again. Pain relievers containing caffeine are excedrin migraine, midol, anacin, and some perscription medications.
Condition Yourself to Unchangeable Circumstances: Regular conditioning to a stimulus will often result in increased resistance to that stimulus. Think of olympic boxers or kung-fu masters who train vigorously. Their pain threshold will be much higher than that of an average person. Situational conditioning can work the same way. A new employee might crack under the pressure of a tough boss, while a veteran employee is already conditioned to the situation. When unchangeable circumstances cause conflict, look for new ways to adapt.
Use Therapies: Whether it’s self-care techniques or an experience in the healing arts, many kinds of therapeutic treatments can expand the pain threshold. Examples are: epsom salt baths, massage, rolfing, biofeedback, sound therapy, medicinal tea, laser therapy, bodywork, psychotherapy, acupuncture, etc.
Seek Behavioral Health: The Blue Zones Project, which gave us insightful research on health and longevity, determined that the following are major factors in leading a healthy life: (1) Having a sense of purpose, (2) Being religious or spiritual, (3) Older and younger people living together, and (4) A healthy social network. If you have been suffering from pain or inflammation, you might recognize these as ‘coping mechanisms’. Having a support system, whether it’s friends, family, a support group, or a therapist, is an important part of keeping the pain threshold high.
Picture yourself coming home from the gym, after a day of accomplishment and breakthroughs at work. You drink a tall glass of water, have a long, fulfilling phone conversation with a friend, and prepare yourself a clean and delicious meal. Your mind is at ease. Your body feels nourished. And in this state, you know that you are well prepared to avoid a flare-up of any kind.
What is it that raises your personal pain threshold?
Baratloo, A, et al. “The Role of Caffeine in Pain Management: A Brief Literature Review.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 26 Mar. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27642573.
Hellström, B, and U M Anderberg. “Pain Perception across the Menstrual Cycle Phases in Women with Chronic Pain.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12705527.
“More to Blue Zones than Long Life: Positive Psychological Characteristics.” Taylor and Francis Online, www.tandfonline.com/eprint/9n2GNrt2ueB7nd4tGHrI/full.
Miguez, G., Laborda, M. and Miller, R. (2019). Classical conditioning and pain: Conditioned analgesia and hyperalgesia.
Ogino, Y, et al. “Dehydration Enhances Pain-Evoked Activation in the Human Brain Compared with Rehydration.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24384865.
“Smokers More Sensitive to Pain.” National Pain Report, 19 Oct. 2013, nationalpainreport.com/smokers-sensitive-pain-8822029.html.