Let’s talk about pain

Kitty disapproves of pain

Friends, I know, I have not written forever. I could come up with a ton of excuses, like life stuff, work etc, but a big part of it is feeling a little stuck for ideas on what to write about. So, please, if there are topics you are interested in, drop me a note, I would love to hear from you (however, I am still writing my monthly newsletter. Check it out here, and sign up to receive it in your inbox, as I am not reposting it on here any more).

In fact, some of you have, and in fact shared the exact same topic, so it would be rude not to explore it! And the topic is…

Pain tolerance

I wouldn’t think of myself as special when it comes to pain tolerance. I guess we all use our own experience as the baseline, and so to me I’m the norm. And yet I’ve been surprised a few times when people have commented on my high pain tolerance.

Case in point: Earlier this year I went for a mammogram. I had had a couple before, so I was fully prepared on what to expect, including the delight of watching my boob being squashed into a pancake. Yes, it did hurt, but it was tolerable and expected. However, the healthcare professional told me I was a model patient, and that others scream (scream? really?) during the scan.

Likewise, a few years ago I was seeing an osteopath. He used to do various manipulations that were indeed painful, including diaphragm release, and kept wondering how come I didn’t complain about pain. I’m pretty sure I’ve been told the same by other body workers, during smear tests, during other health check-ups and so on.

(I did have a Thai massage at some point earlier this year though, and when the masseuse pressed down strongly on my upper back I did shout “fuck!”, mainly because I was so surprised at the sensation, and relieved of pain that I did not even know I was experiencing).

Why would I have a ‘higher’ pain tolerance?

1. Redheads experience pain differently

I used to think that redheads feel more pain (probably because I’d heard about research showing that redheads need more anaesthesia), but apparently its more complicated than that. According to recent research (or here for simpler summary) redheads actually have a higher pain threshold, which apparently is tied to our lack of melanin. Note that this particular study was done in mice as it was looking for the mechanism to explain the difference in pain perception and to understand why we need higher doses of anaesthetic, but previous work has also shown a higher pain threshold in redheads and their mutant mouse counterparts.

2. Yogis may have a higher pain threshold

Ok let’s dissect this. There was one study that looked at differences in pain perception between yoga and non-yoga practitioners. They found that yoga practitioners tolerated pain for twice as long as non-yoga practitioners, specifically exposure to heat and cold (ie dunking their hand into ice water).

They also observed that yoga practitioners had more grey matter in the part of the brain called the insula – note that previous research has observed that there is less grey matter in those living with chronic pain, eg chronic back pain, fibromyalgia etc, so there is clearly a link between pain and grey matter.

Because the levels of grey matter corresponded with the years of yoga practice (ie the more experienced the practitioner, the more grey matter they had), the researchers concluded that there must be a link between yoga and levels of grey matter in the brain. This has also been found in other research, eg see here, although note that most studies seem to reference yoga meditation rather than physical practice.

Now, the usual caveats apply. This is a very well-cited study; in fact, you will see it in every article that talks about yoga and pain. But, it was tiny, with only 14 participants. It was also published in 2013 (scary, but that’s literally almost 10 years ago), and no one has since published anything on this topic (not that I can find anyway). That doesn’t mean it’s not true (it probably means that they couldn’t get any funding for more work), it just means I would take it with a pinch of salt, as usual.

It is plausible though. We are used to strong sensations; in a typical class we exercise and stretch our muscles, notice and interrogate sensations without necessarily reacting, and breathe into what we feel. If you practice yin yoga, this is probably amplified even more, as you stay in the pose for so much longer and get used feeling, breathing and relaxing.

Given that pain is frequently our own interpretation of the sensation we are feeling, it makes sense that being more attuned to your body may result in a different approach to pain interpretation. Indeed, according to the researchers “yoga practitioners, but not control subjects, used cognitive strategies involving parasympathetic activation and interoceptive awareness to tolerate pain”.

What is your experience? Have you noticed that yoga has increased your pain threshold?

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