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PAIN THRESHOLD: HOW MUCH PAIN CAN THE HUMAN BODY ENDURE?

At one point or the other, we have all experienced our fair dose of pain. Be it illness, an accident or simply ramming parts of our bodies into objects, we know what pain feels like. The yearning to understand this simple but intricate part of human nature has given rise to a number of questions like -Is there a limit to the amount of pain the human body can handle? How much pain can the human body take before passing out? Can pain cause death?. Here is what we know regarding pain and the ensuing questions.

Pain is an uncomfortable and emotional sensation that is usually brought on by tissue damage. Pain occurs when certain nerves called nociceptors to send signals to inform the brain of tissue damage. Pain can be intense and short-lived (acute) or long-lasting (chronic). Although pain is mostly unpleasant, it acts as a messenger to warn us that something is not quite right with our body and that we need to do something about it.

Pain is not always physical, it can be emotional too. Emotional pain does not always translate to physical symptoms but it is just as intense as physical pain. The lump you feel in your throat when you are on the verge of tears or the shattering pain in your chest when you are going through grief or heartbreak are all indicators of emotional pain. With emotional pain, you can’t point to a specific injury that is causing you pain.

You may even experience physical symptoms like backache, chest pain, and stomach pain, but a medical exam may not find a direct physical link to the cause of your discomfort. While physical pain has a root cause that can respond to treatment, emotional pain in most cases does not have a physical link which makes it even harder to treat. Emotional feelings like sadness, unexpressed anger and guilt if not properly managed can cause long-term physical implications.

 

THE PAIN THRESHOLD 

We all respond and react to pain differently. What may be extremely painful for others may be less painful for some. How our body interprets pain also differs. The point at which we begin to feel pain after an injury has occurred varies with each person. This is what scientists refer to as the pain threshold. For instance, one may not immediately experience pain when they come in contact with a pain-inflicting object or source until the pressure has reached a certain point. They may only experience discomfort at first which may gradually build up into pain. However, For some people, coming into contact with a pain-inflicting source may register the feeling of intense pain immediately.

 

PAIN TOLERANCE 

Pain tolerance on the other hand is the maximum level of pain a person can withstand. It helps to ascertain if the pain needs immediate medical attention or not. Like pain threshold, tolerance for certain painful conditions also differs. People can develop a low and high tolerance for pain due to certain factors.

Unusual pain tolerance is known as pain tolerance disorder. For instance factors like depression, genetic makeup, and gender can lower a person’s tolerance to pain. Being exposed to the same source of pain for a long period of time can make a person develop a high tolerance for the pain which may be unhealthy at certain levels.

Aside from this, high pain tolerance disorder can also be due to genetic and neurological factors. Defects in the central nervous system and nerve injuries can cause a higher tolerance for pain. The condition is expressed in Prader-Willi syndrome which is a congenital disorder that occurs when the inherited paternal chromosome is deleted in a child. A child with low pain tolerance may also be suffering from autism which is a developmental disorder that negatively affects communication and interaction abilities.

HOW MUCH PAIN CAN A HUMAN BODY BEAR?

It is quite difficult to quantify pain as it is subjective and complex. In a bid to quantify pain, a group of scientists invented the dol unit of measurement for pain. The researchers burnt the forehead of the study participants intermittently for three seconds and asked them to report the level of pain based on a 0-10.5 scale.

Most of the participants with second-degree burns reported a pain level of 8. Some of them reported unbearable pain that could not be qualified on the dol measurement scale. The act of measuring pain using this method is known as dolorimetry while the instrument used for this measurement is called a dolorimeter.

Dolorimeters are used to exert heat, electrical stimulation, and pressure to areas of the body to determine the point at which the body registers the sensation of pain. The reading of the pain scale is expressed in the dol unit of measurement. However, this method of quantifying pain has been dubbed questionable.

 

HOW MANY UNITS OF PAIN CAN A HUMAN TAKE?

It is said that the human body can only handle 45 del units of pain and women experience 57 del units of pain when giving birth. But the fact is, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Childbirth is indisputably a very painful experience but labor pain level cannot be specifically quantified.

Apart from childbirth, period pains and the pains associated with passing kidney stones are also considered very painful experiences, and it is not uncommon to find people asking questions on the internet like; how much del is period pain or how many dels of pain is a kidney stone? But the truth is, there is no accurate measurement for such painful conditions.

The del unit itself does not exist and it is only a myth. There is only the dol unit of pain from the dolorimeter scale, which records 10.5 dols as the maximum intense pain a person can experience. So the readings of 45 dels and 57 dels are scientifically considered irrelevant.

 

HOW DO DOCTORS MEASURE PAIN?

Since pain is varied and subjective and cannot be accurately measured, then how do doctors gauge the amount of pain their patient is suffering from to make the proper diagnosis and prescribe the right treatment?  This is where the pain threshold chart comes in. This is an identification chart that helps patients gauge their pain on a scale of one to ten. The chart is usually a display of facial expressions or smileys that are associated with pain levels. Pain intensity on the chart is often categorized as :

  • 0-No pain
  • 2- Mild pain that is barely noticeable
  • 3- Mild but noticeable pain.
  • 4- Moderate pain
  • 5- Moderate and severe pain that doesn’t limit your ability to carry out some activities
  • 6- Moderate and severe pain that interferes with daily activities and lowers the concentration
  • 7- Severe pain that completely limits your ability to carry out your routine daily activities and disrupts sleep.
  • 8- Intense pain that interferes with physical and communication abilities
  • 9- Crippling and excruciating pain that is accompanied by crying or moaning.
  • 10- Severely debilitating pain that may hinder your ability to move and confines you to a bed.

HOW TO EXPLAIN PAIN TO A DOCTOR

Doctors mostly rely on patient self-reporting and pain scale charts to assess a person’s degree of pain. This means that one needs to know how to effectively communicate their pain to a doctor. While it is maybe difficult to explain physical sensations with words, there are certain words that can help indicate the type of pain you are experiencing to your doctor. You can tell your doctor that your pain feels like:

  • A sharp stabbing sensation
  • A throbbing ache
  • Intense itching
  • A burning sensation
  • A tingling or numb sensation
  • A cramping or biting sensation

When you have successfully described what your pain feels like, ensure to tell him or her the exact location where it hurts and if the painful sensation radiates from within or it is just on the surface. Also let your doctor know for how long you’ve had the pain, or if it goes and comes.

If your doctor asks you to indicate your pain level using a pain chart, be sure to expatiate further on how the pain is affecting you. You can also compare the pain to other painful experiences you’ve had and what your pain threshold feels like. This is necessary because the chart may not accurately give a true depiction of the intensity of your pain.

 

MOST PAINFUL THINGS RANKED

Here are some of the most painful experiences in no particular order, according to NHS most painful conditions :

Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches cause a profound and excruciating pain on one side of the head that is mostly felt near the eye. As the name implies, it occurs in cyclical patterns or in cluster periods that can last from weeks to months followed by remission periods when the headache disappears. It can last for hours or occur on a daily basis and it may even disrupt sleep. Some sufferers have likened the pain of cluster headaches to the pain of childbirth but through the eyes.

Shingles: This is an infection of the skin and nerves that is also called herpes zoster.It is characterized by a painful rash that eventually transforms into blisters on one side of the body. The infection typically lasts between two and four weeks. Some people may develop nerve pain in the affected area of the skin. The pain is usually severe and can last for several months or even longer.

Frozen shoulder:  This is characterized by pain and stiffness in the shoulder muscles. The pain is severe and long-lasting. The shoulder joints become very stiff and sore that it is almost impossible to move the arms. The condition is prevalent among people with diabetes and it can occur following an arm or shoulder injury.

Broken Bones: Broken bones are excruciatingly painful and fractures of the hip, arm, ankle, and nose are particularly the most painful. Breaking larger bones is far more painful than smaller ones.

 

Complex regional syndrome (CRPS): This is one condition that is poorly understood by medical practitioners. It is accompanied by severe, agonizing, and persistent pain. It is mostly triggered by an injury. The pain is usually felt on one limb but in some cases, it can spread to other parts of the body. The affected skin is often inflamed and tender to the touch(which can cause severe pain when touched lightly).

Heart attack: An heart attack occurs when blood flow is limited or completely stops flowing to a part of the heart. This may be caused by the narrowing of the arteries which becomes filled with fatty materials or cholesterol. This blocks the flow of blood to the heart. The classic symptom of a heart attack is a painful constriction in the chest, and pain that radiates from the chest to the jaw, arms, neck or back. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, and vomiting. Heart attacks can be fatal if not treated urgently.

Slipped disc: A slipped disc occurs due to an injury that causes one of the discs in the spine to rupture and leak. A slipped disc often causes a severe lower backache. The pain usually subsides when lying down and intensifies with coughing and sneezing. It may also cause pain in the legs.

Kidney stones: People usually describe the process of passing kidney stones as unbearably painful. It occurs when solid material (stones) forms in the kidney and is passed through the urinary tract which exits the body with urine flow.  Small stones can pass the urinary tract without causing any noticeable pain or symptoms, but stones larger than 5 millimeters can block the ureter and cause intense pain in the abdomen or lower back. It may also cause blood in the urine, painful urination, and vomiting.

Gout: excess uric acid in the bloodstream is the primary cause of gout, which is a form of arthritis. The painful symptoms appear when uric acid crystals form in the joints. The condition mostly affects the joint of the big toe. It is common among men aged between 40 and 60 years old.

Sciatica: Sciatica is caused by the compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body that extends from the pelvis to the feet. It may cause a mild or severe pain that radiates from the buttocks to the foot. It may also cause a tingling sensation. In severe cases, the pain is so intense that it is nearly impossible to move the legs.

Trigeminal neuralgia: This condition is marked by a sharp and sudden shooting pain that affects parts of the face, particularly the jaw, teeth, and gums. It occurs briefly and intermittently. Any mild stimulation of the face, such as when brushing or simply touching the face can bring on the pain. The condition is progressive and has no known cure, but there are several treatment options that can relieve the pain.

Fibromyalgia: This is a long term condition that causes an intense aching or burning pain in all parts of the body. It also causes fatigue and overall body tiredness. The pain may come and go. The pain is non-specific and can change the location at any time. It may also be worse during some periods than others.

Endometriosis: This is a painful condition that majorly affects women. It occurs when the tissue surrounding the womb grows in other areas such as the pelvic region. This tissue growth can cause adhesions, inflammation, and scarring in the affected area which can cause excruciating pain and other symptoms.

The condition is characterized by painful cramps during or in between periods, heavy menstrual bleeding, irregular periods, pain during sex, and painful bowel movements.

Pain after surgery: Postoperative pain is normal and often lasts for days or weeks after surgery. Postoperative pain that is chronic and debilitating is known as chronic post-surgical pain and it is not often a good sign. This type of pain requires medical review and attention.

CAN PAIN MAKE YOU PASS OUT?

It is not uncommon for people to pass out from intense pain. This happens because of the shortage of blood flow to the brain. A hike in pain can temporarily interrupt the functioning of the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS).

The ANS controls the body’s blood pressure and heart rate. A defect in this system can cause a drop in blood pressure and heart rate which can result in limited blood flow to the brain. When this happens, the body undergoes stress and the person may faint. The amount of pain that can cause fainting is subjective and depend’s on a person’s pain tolerance.

 

CAN PAIN KILL YOU?

Can pain be so intense and severe to cause death?  Pain does not directly cause death, but the resulting shock from pain can. Naturally, when your brain senses that the pain is unbearable for your body to handle, it automatically shuts down and causes you to faint (as explained above).

However, in some very rare cases, pain can result in circulatory shock. This occurs when a limited amount of blood and oxygen reaches your body cells and causes rapid tissue damage. If shock is not treated quickly, it can cause further damage to the body organs and the brain, which can result in sudden death.

It is for this reason, that soldiers often carried morphine with them during World War 11. Morphine when administered quickly to wounded soldiers with fatal injuries can substantially reduce the level of pain and prevent circulatory shock.

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