As someone who helps people in pain, I have learned a few things about it. First of all, many people have an overly simplistic view of pain. It is either there, or it isn’t. We may use diagrams and pain scales, but pain tends to be more complex. It is important to know where it hurts, and also how much it hurts. But it is also important to know when the pain begins and how quickly it becomes intolerable. In general we talk about two different aspects of pain.
A person’s pain threshold is the point when nerve stimulation goes from informative to painful. During a massage you might say to yourself, ‘I can feel you touching my arm. I can feel your pressure increasing. Now your pressure has increased to the point that it hurts.’ We have just crossed your pain threshold. The pain threshold for some people is low. This is often the case when someone has been in chronic pain for a long time. Nearly any pressure, even the pressure of clothing is painful. Others have a hard time feeling pain before they are in danger of serious harm. As with most things, there is a wide range and the vast majority of people are somewhere in between.
In massage, sometimes we need to cross this threshold in order to address an issue and affect a change. It is important to have a clear understanding and open communication once the threshold is reached. Massaging the area will stretch the muscle, decrease the inflammation and increase circulation, ultimately relieving the pain. But for the moment, the pressure will add to the pain. Gradual pressure allows us to find the therapeutic balance often described as the ‘hurts so good’ zone.
Pain tolerance refers to how much pain a person can feel before they just can’t take anymore. If the pain threshold is when you first feel pain, pain tolerance is the upper limit. If we apply too much pressure too quickly we reach that limit and the muscles will tighten up to guard the area.
Some people have a very high tolerance to pain. They can withstand a great deal of nerve stimulation before it becomes unbearable. For others, their tolerance is low. Each person is different and their tolerance can change from day to day or from one area to another.
Going back to those who are dealing with chronic pain issues, often they have a low pain threshold and a high level of pain tolerance. As a result, they are often feeling pain but they also endure far more pain than the average person.
For others, the distance between their threshold and their tolerance is very small. It is an all or nothing experience. Some may feel awkward, or that they should be able to take more, but pain is pain. It doesn’t matter if these two limits are narrow or wide, high or low. What matters is clear and open communication between yourself and your therapist to know where these limits are.