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How Much Pain Can We Realistically Take?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
From a small pang of pain to absolute agony, it's never a good feeling if you get hurt. But, is there an upper limit to the pain that we can withstand? The human pain threshold seems to differ from person to person, yes. But everyone has a cut-off point - right? In this video, we explore the science behind pain. Why we feel it, what it's for, and why some pains are said to be much worse than others.

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How Much Pain Can We Realistically Take?

Pain is a necessary evil. Yes, it’s never fun (and often excruciating) to experience it, but it is a needed defense mechanism that our body employs to tell itself that something is wrong. But surely there comes a point where the pain becomes too unbearable to manage?

The challenge here is that pain is an entirely subjective experience. Some people may cry and scream when they break their arm, while others make do with a grin-and-bear-it grimace. Then again, someone else could completely pass out. According to some, it’s a case of mind over matter – if you don’t panic, or if you have the mental capacity to somehow overcome the physical sensation, then you might notice the pain less. There are also tolerances to consider, which come into play once your ‘threshold’ has been reached. A person who has previously broken their arm multiple times may react much differently (perhaps more calmly) compared to someone who has broken it for the first time.

It could also be a case of simple biology, and possibly even gender. A study released in 2002 suggested that men have a higher pain threshold than women, because the female body tends to release fewer natural painkillers – called beta endorphins – whenever it’s injured. A 2012 experiment at Stanford University drew similar results. However, further studies have also shown that men have higher pain tolerances while in the company of others (such as in a laboratory setting) compared to when they’re alone – with suggestions that it could be an evolutionary behaviour meant to hide weakness.

All in, there are a whole host of variables to consider when dealing with today’s question. And unfortunately, this means that “pain” isn’t a measurable construct, and different people can handle different levels of it.

That said, there are some things we can all agree are incredibly painful. In 2014, Medical Daily compiled an eye-watering list of the most painful things a human being can endure. They include: childbirth, shingles, kidney stones, gallstones, severe burns, trigeminal neuralgia, spinal taps, a tooth abscess, and cluster headaches – which we’ll be returning to. Other, less medical things are also featured such as persistent forms of torture and initiation rites, including the infamous bullet ant gloves employed as a coming-of-age ritual for a particular Amazonian tribe. Regardless of anyone’s individual tolerances, these are put forward as the most painful experiences around – and therefore those most likely to trigger the worst, or most extreme, reactions.

Fainting, or syncope, is one of our body’s foremost natural defense mechanisms against such threats. So, there’s good reason why it’s a well-used stereotype in film and TV. It occurs when your body essentially shuts down blood access to the brain, forbidding it to function as normal. While seeing someone else faint can be a frightening experience for the onlooker, it’s often mostly indicative of your brain’s effort to save itself, and you, from the death it fears is coming. If you have a low pain tolerance, or if you’re experiencing a significant amount of pain unlike anything you have ever felt before, your body may (rightly or wrongly) believe it to be a serious and life-threatening problem, and so it shuts itself down as a preventative measure.

Nevertheless, the fallback of fainting doesn’t always work, and according to some researchers it IS possible to actually die from pain – although it’s exceedingly rare. And in truth, simply ‘pain’ is never the sole cause of death, but a contributing factor. The extreme sensation is often brought about by an injury that’s life threatening in itself, or else the pain triggers a dangerous psychological issue or shock, which may prompt a heart attack. The physical pain cannot kill you outright, because as we’ve established, your brain would shut down before things got that far.

Dying from the shock of pain is another matter, though. And often a reality. Throughout history, this unenviable fate has frequently occurred amidst the chaos of a battlefield. You may have seen various war movies where a morphine syrette is administered to a wounded soldier to ease their agony. Today, medics actually use Fentanyl-infused lollipops instead of the more traditional injections because it absorbs into the bloodstream much faster. The hope is that the medicine will not only ease their pain, but also stop them from going into shock, which, if left untreated (as is easily done on a bloody and busy battlefield), could result in death. Still, in these unfortunate scenarios it isn’t the actual pain that causes death, but the pain combined with the panic of significant injury (like a lost limb or exposed organs), which prompts shock, which pre-empts that person passing away.

Contrastingly, a patient can also die of persistent pain, often resulting from chronic illnesses. Apart from presenting the sufferer with an extremely unpleasant day-to-day, minute-to-minute experience, chronic pain causes stress, and stress can significantly weaken a body’s immune system. Therefore, there’s an increased risk of severe sickness or infection. Plus, the determination to battle through the pain, to keep taking your meds and seeking treatments could naturally start to wane after an especially prolonged period. If a person does succumb under these circumstances, it’s again a case of pain indirectly causing death – but its significance to the unfortunate outcome is clear.

Finally, and perhaps most frighteningly of all, there’s the case of cluster headaches. These are severe headaches that typically affect the eye area and last for anywhere between fifteen minutes to multiple hours. Bouts of them also tend to run for weeks or even years at a time, ensuring that there is no getting rid of them, despite preventative measures. Cluster headaches are often alternatively labelled as “suicide headaches” because they are so unbelievably painful that they’ve literally driven people to suicide. Sufferers have compared the pain to being shot in the face, having a poker inserted into your eye socket, and feeling as though the back of your eyeball is constantly being cut. Some people even report being unable to talk or move whenever the pain takes hold.

The combination of severe pain, constant anxiety over when the next attack will strike, and the unavoidable persistency of the headaches has led a long list of commentators to suggest that they’re the most painful thing a human being can experience. And, with various doctors, surgeons and specialists issuing tragic evidence to support their suicide-causing reputation, cluster headaches often appear to inflict much more pain than anyone can realistically take.

All things considered, we can see that pain absolutely has the ability to kill a person, although it almost always works as an indirect cause and even then, it’s exceedingly rare. Exactly how much pain we can take is difficult (if not impossible) to determine, as it’s an entirely personal and subjective experience. However, everyone has their threshold, and everyone has their breaking point – and there are some things that go beyond both.

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