Can you increase your pain tolerance? Science says yes – here’s how

Struggling with acute pain or the chronic type that one in five Australians live with? The good news is you can increase your pain tolerance. Here’s how.

From stubbing a toe to having a pounding headache, a toothache or back pain, we all feel physical pain occasionally – or sometimes regularly.
Research has shown how we experience pain can be different from someone else because of non-modifiable factors such as our age, ethnicity and even our natural hair colour.

But, it turns out, there may also be other things at play that affect our pain tolerance and pain threshold – things we can change or do differently to help us feel less discomfort.

University of South Australia research suggests pain is the brain’s protective output in response to threat, which can take many forms.

This threat may include what’s physically happening in our bodies, as well as our thoughts, emotions and even the context of a given situation – which means it is possible to reframe our perception of pain.

LISTEN: Chronic Pain Australia’s Fiona Hodson shines a light on pain management on The House of Wellness Radio show:

5 ways to increase your pain tolerance

Here’s what you can do to handle pain with more ease:

1. Start moving more

The results of a recent large study in Norway show people who are physically active have a higher tolerance for pain than sedentary people – and the higher the level of activity, the higher the level of pain tolerance.

As a result, the researchers say boosting physical activity might be a way to ease chronic pain, or even help protect against it.

2. Practise mindfulness

According to a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, pain-related brain activity changes for the better following mindfulness training.

Study participants who’d never practised mindfulness before learnt to respond to pain with less distress and more psychological flexibility after an eight-week mindfulness course.

“Our finding supports the idea that for new practitioners, mindfulness training directly affects how sensory signals from the body are converted into a brain response,” study lead author Joseph Wielgosz says.

The study also showed that the more you practise mindfulness, the stronger the effect.

“Just like an experienced athlete plays sport differently than a first-timer, experienced mindfulness practitioners seem to use their mental ‘muscles’ differently in response to pain than first-time meditators,” Joseph says.

3. Grow your social circle

Other research suggests people with more friends tolerate pain better.

It’s likely thanks to endorphins, potent pain-killing chemicals that both drive social connectedness and are released in response to it.

4. Listen to your favourite music

The next time you’re experiencing pain or anticipating a painful procedure, putting on your favourite tunes might bump up your pain threshold.

Interestingly, being subjected to music you don’t like when you’re in pain has the opposite effect.

5. Investigate cognitive functional therapy (CFT)

A clinical trial conducted by Curtin University and Macquarie University into the effectiveness of cognitive functional therapy (CFT) on long-term lower back pain has shown promising results.

Using intensive personalised sessions with specially trained physiotherapists to help participants develop a positive mindset, better understand their back pain and take charge of its management, CFT delivered lasting benefits.

“More than 80 per cent of the participants who received CFT reported … significant improvement in pain levels and being able to return to activities they had previously enjoyed,” Macquarie University trial lead Professor Mark Hancock says.

The CFT participants also still reported reduced pain and improved function 12 months later, Prof Hancock adds.

Read more on pain and how to relieve discomfort:

Written by Karen Fittall.