I was looking up pain tolerance a couple weeks ago, because my back’s been hurting, because I am old, and it’s been preventing me from working out as much as I’d like. I’m poor, so not using my gym membership is like pulling teeth. As you can see, it’s just painful all around.
And that’s just no good. Since it doesn’t seem to be getting better from resting it (I think it has more to do with posture and spending too much time staring at a computer, I got to wondering about just working through pain. I’m not really concerned with the pain itself, I just don’t want to seriously injure anything. And that got me wondering about pain tolerance. I came across an interesting article on Runner’s World‘s website, regarding pain tolerance and thresholds; more intriguing, the testing method they used was simple to replicate.
The test was simply to plunge the individual’s hand into a bucket of ice water and see how long they could hold it there (up to a 3 minute limit) and then ask to rate the pain on a 1-10 scale. According to the article:
The runners–all of whom lasted the full three minutes–rated the pain an average of 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Most of the nonrunners in a control group, by contrast, gave up halfway through the test and rated the pain as 10.
So I thought, I wonder how I would do on that? Note they don’t say anything about sample size, and it seems to me this measures cold tolerance rather than general pain tolerance. Also, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question going on here: Are athletes tougher or are tougher people more likely to be athletes? As it turns out, a bit of both.
Lauren volunteered to help out with the testing, because she’ll do what needs to be done In the Name of Science, because she’s awesome. The results were pretty entertaining. We didn’t film my first run, but I didn’t think it was too bad. So out went the camera, with Lauren volunteering for the filmed version.
Lauren had, as you can see, a rough first round, but she stepped it up on the second round to go the full three minutes. I noticed it hurt less the second time, too. I’d rate it about 5, the first time, maybe 4 the second. I may have a slightly warped scale. My family has a documented weird reaction to several pain medications, which has caused a few problems. I remember when I had my wisdom teeth removed, whatever was supposed to knock me out the first time didn’t (the second worked juuusssst fine), and let’s just say, I know what it feels like to have a cavity filled without much in the way of numbing from Novocaine.
The first time she let me go for almost five minutes, which wasn’t very nice.
We hypothesize this divergence is due to various painkiller-type chemicals being released by our bodies after/during the first go. It seems possible that my higher tolerance might have something to do with my own body being more used to pain, and therefore more inclined to churn out the chemicals needed to tone things down. Sort of like how people sweat more if they’re in shape. Working out regularly, even moderate exercise, apparently increases pain tolerance by up to 20%, so that does make a certain sort of sense.
In the meantime, I’m searching out a few more possible tests to do, just to see, as I get back into working out, how much, if at all, my pain tolerance changes.
Researching this, I did find a few interesting things, and they might cause disruption and ruin the already dubious scientific rigor of these tests. First off, regularly experiences pain can actually increase sensitivity, according to Wikipedia . . . apparently through strengthening neural connections. That makes sense, really, when you think about it. I mean, using your fingers for dexterous tasks increases dexterity, right?
Second, less surprisingly, pain tolerance is partially physical, and partly mental. I suspect much more the latter than the former, not that they’re truly as separate as we like to pretend they are. Any kind of endurance is rooted in the ability to disconnect the mind from the stimuli telling us we’re bored, tired, in pain, etc.
Third, I don’t want to actually cause harm to myself. So I went and found some scientifically accepted methods of pain tolerance.
Cold Water Immersion Test – I’ve already done this, so I won’t describe it, but I will do a follow-up in the next month or so.
Hot Water Immersion Test – Exactly what it sounds like. The literature I found for it used a 47*C/116*F temperature, which should be easy to reach since our hot water tap releases water that might be more accurately described as “steam”. Some time in the next couple days I’ll try this one.
Electrical – This one’s a little more iffy. I’m not sure there’s an easy/safe/cheap way to do this, so I probably won’t. And I doubt I can afford to rent one of the army’s experimental pain rays.