How To Increase Pain Tolerance: 5 Methods To Improve Yours

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No one likes to be in pain. Whether you have an acute injury or you are dealing with the discomfort of a vigorous workout, if you have a high pain tolerance, you will be able to endure the painful experience with more ease.

But, what exactly is pain tolerance? Do women have a higher pain tolerance than men? If you have a low tolerance of pain, are there strategies for how to increase pain tolerance?

In this article, we will discuss the difference between low pain tolerance and high pain tolerance and tips for how to increase pain tolerance if you have a low pain tolerance.

We will cover: 

  • Why Do We Feel Pain?
  • What Is Pain Tolerance?
  • Why Is My Pain Tolerance Low?
  • How Do You Measure Pain Tolerance?
  • How To Increase Pain Tolerance

Let’s jump in!

A person holding the word pain in their hands.

Why Do We Feel Pain?

Feeling pain serves an important role in survival. Pain alerts us to a potential threat or harm to the body or in the body.

For example, if you touch a hot burner, you will feel pain in your hand, which serves to immediately and almost reflexively pull your hand away from the hot burner to protect your body from a more severe burn. 

If you did not feel pain, you could get severe burns on your hand that could even result in the loss of your appendage.

Internally, pain serves a similar protective and forewarning role. 

For example, if you have extreme pain in the right lower quadrant of your abdomen, it can be indicative of appendicitis. 

Seeking immediate medical attention to have your appendix removed can prevent the appendix from bursting and spreading infectious material into your bloodstream.

In other words, although most people do not enjoy the sensation of pain, it is important that we can feel pain.

A person at their desk holding their head and closing their eyes due to the pain provoked from a headache.

What Is Pain Tolerance?

Most people have a vague understanding of what pain tolerance is, such that they can understand from a theoretical perspective that a higher pain tolerance is better than a low pain tolerance. But what exactly is pain tolerance?

Your pain tolerance is the maximum amount of pain—or the peak severity of pain—that you can handle.

Someone with the highest pain tolerance will be able to withstand more severe pain than someone with a low pain tolerance without completely succumbing to the need for extreme medical intervention or pain blockers of some sort.

It’s important to mention that your pain tolerance is distinct from your pain threshold. Your pain threshold is the minimum amount of pain at which you can detect pain. 

For example, someone squeezing your hand may first feel just like a bit of pressure, and then once the squeeze becomes tight enough and crosses your own personal pain threshold, it will begin to feel painful.

Your pain threshold and your pain tolerance are independent, though in most cases, if you have higher pain tolerance, you will also have a higher pain threshold.

Most of the strategies for how to increase your pain tolerance will also increase your threshold for pain.

As with most physiological processes, the perception of pain and your pain tolerance is individual. Therefore, pain tolerance can vary between any two individuals, and it is not always clear why someone has a higher pain threshold than someone else. 

A runner holding their quadricep.

Why Is My Pain Tolerance Low?

There are several different factors that can affect your pain tolerance level.

People with the highest pain tolerance will fall on the higher pain tolerance side of each of these factors that can determine the communication between your brain and nervous system about the perception of pain.

Here are the primary factors that influence whether you have a high or low tolerance of pain:


Studies have found that certain aspects of your genetics seem to influence both your perception of pain as well as your response to pain medications. There may be certain genes that are more or less sensitive to pain.


One of the most common questions people ask about pain tolerance levels is, “do women have a higher pain tolerance than men?“

Interestingly, although the reasons have not been clearly elucidated yet through research, studies have suggested the contrary—that women seem to have longer-lasting and more severe responses to pain than men.

A person holding their shoulder in pain.


Although the mechanisms of action are not fully understood, elderly adults tend to have a higher pain threshold.

This may be due to the fact that a lot of our senses become duller with age, so it is possible that the nociceptors and nerves relaying pain signals are slower to respond and less reactive.

Emotional Health

Aspects of your emotional or mental health can affect your sensitivity to pain.

Stress may lower your pain tolerance. Social isolation or loneliness can also reduce your pain tolerance.

Other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and past trauma or experiences of severe pain, can also lower your pain tolerance and increase your reactivity to painful stimuli.

Chronic Illness

Certain chronic illnesses can affect your pain tolerance. Fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic Lyme disease, and complex regional pain syndrome are all examples of conditions that can increase the sensitivity to pain, decrease your pain threshold, and result in low pain tolerance.

A person outside in the woods, holding their ankle.


This last factor is perhaps the most interesting and the one that can potentially be manipulated when seeking strategies for how to increase your pain tolerance.

To some degree, whether you have a low vs high tolerance of pain is dependent upon your expectations and past experiences with pain.

For example, if you develop coping strategies to manage pain, such as breathing techniques, you can endure more severe pain and raise your pain tolerance.

Additionally, your expectations for what you imagine you will experience can greatly influence whether you have a higher pain tolerance for the pain that you end up experiencing or a lower pain tolerance.

For instance, if you hate getting a shot or blood drawn because you do not like the feeling of a needle going into your arm, if you sit there anticipating an extremely painful poke that’s about to come, you may perceive the puncture to be worse than it may feel if you stay relaxed and think to yourself, “This isn’t going to hurt much at all; it’s just a quick little pinch.“

An ice bath.

How Do You Measure Pain Tolerance?

It’s not very easy to objectively measure pain tolerance. Even among the scientific and medical community, there is some debate over the reliability of methods to test pain tolerance levels.

With that said, here are some of the methods used to measure pain tolerance:


An instrument called a dolorimeter can assess your pain threshold and pain tolerance to different stimuli.

With dolorimetry, there are different types of dolorimeters used for different types of painful sensations, such as heat, pressure, or even electrical shock.

As different amounts of pain are applied to your body, you report your relative pain level.

Cold Pressor Test

Although it is somewhat controversial how reliable this test is, it could be used to assess your pain threshold as well as your pain tolerance.

Basically, your hand is submerged in a bucket of ice water. The time is recorded between the instant your hand enters the bucket and when you first report that you feel pain. This is your pain threshold. Then, your pain tolerance is the time at which you need to remove your hand.

This may not be particularly reliable for pain tolerance because your hands might become numb.

The word pain.

Pain Scales

There are numerous pain scales that are used by doctors and people in the medical community to assess a patient’s level of pain.

Typically, different numbers are ascribed to help quantify the intensity of pain that you are feeling.

The utility of these pain skills is less about comparing the pain experience between any two people but about monitoring the change in the severity of your pain over time.

For example, if you have fractured your wrist, you might indicate that your pain level is a 9 out of 10. 

At your follow-up appointment after being in a cast for six weeks, your doctor may reassess your pain level by asking what your current level of pain is. If healing or treatment is working, you might indicate that your severity of pain is now a 4 out of 10.

A person running hard on a deck along the beach.

How to Increase Pain Tolerance

Although you might be prone to a low pain tolerance, there are ways that you can try to increase your pain tolerance.

Here are a few methods for how to improve your pain tolerance:

#1: Intense Exercise

It’s probably not surprising that athletes may have a higher pain tolerance than non-athletes.

Vigorous exercise subjects your body to discomfort, and if you are consistently working out and performing high-intensity exercise, you are routinely challenging your body to get “comfortable being uncomfortable.“

Studies have found that vigorous cycling can increase pain tolerance, though the pain threshold was not improved.

#2: Yoga

Studies have found that people who regularly do yoga have a higher pain tolerance than those who don’t.

Furthermore, the reason for this improvement in pain tolerance may be attributable to the fact that participants who regularly practiced yoga appeared to have more gray matter in the areas of the brain that are associated with pain perception and processing.

A person doing yoga on a mat.

#3: Mental Imagery

Sports psychologists say that using positive mental imagery can be one of the best ways to improve your pain tolerance.

You can either try to disassociate from the pain by imagining yourself in a serene and peaceful place, such as on a tropical beach or relaxing in a warm bubble bath, or you can envision the pain as something physical such as a flaming red ball or a glowing ember and then try to imagine yourself throwing it or hurling it away from you or stomping on it with your foot.

Of course, you can devise your own mental imagery strategies to manage pain, but usually, visualization is one of the best ways to increase your pain tolerance and withstand physically painful situations.

#4: Vocalization

Interestingly, vocalizing your pain may actually reduce your perception of pain and increase your pain tolerance.

For example, one study found that when participants did the cold pressor test, those who were asked to say “owl!“ as they submerged their hand in the ice water had a higher pain tolerance than those who were told to keep quiet.

Another study corroborated these results and found that when people were allowed to curse when doing the cold pressor test they had a higher pain tolerance than those who vocalized a neutral word. How interesting!

Taken into the world of sports and athletics, some people say that the vocalizations and grunts of effort that tennis players and weightlifters express during bouts of vigorous effort may reduce the perception of discomfort and improve performance.

A person doing breathing techniques.

#5: Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a type of therapy that can help you increase your response to stressors and other pain. A therapist will teach you pain management techniques, like relaxation and breathing exercises.

Biofeedback therapy can be helpful for managing physical and mental conditions, such as fibromyalgia, chronic low back pain, and anxiety.

Along with methods like breathwork, taking cold showers or ice baths, and meditation, with the above methods, it is typically possible to train your brain and nervous system to be less reactive to pain so that you can gradually increase your pain tolerance and pain threshold.

Now, if you are experiencing pain and need some relief, check out our article, Pain Relief, When To Use Heat Vs Ice To Treat Injuries.

A person meditating outside on a mat on the grass.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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