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When In Pain, Are You a Baby or Linebacker?

When it comes to pain, do you cry like a baby at the slightest bump or are you a football player, pushing through the anguish without a pause? New research shows how you react to pain may be linked to how much grey matter you have in certain areas of the brain.

A study published in January in the journal Pain found less pain sensitivity in people who had denser grey matter in the areas that control how we focus attention and areas involved in daydreaming. The findings may help doctors recognize which patients will need less pain medication after surgery and give clues to the development of chronic pain syndromes.

For the new study, researchers tested the pain sensitivity of 116 healthy volunteers by touching them with a probe that was heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and then asking them to rate the level of the pain on a scale of 0 to 10. Several days later the volunteers were given an MRI, which found that those who were least sensitive to pain were the ones with the most grey matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus, the intraparietal sulcus, and the inferior parietal lobule. The researchers suspect that people with more grey matter in these areas are better able to distract themselves from pain messages.

Our brains are constructed so we can be distracted from the sensation of pain in certain circumstances, such as when athletes are competing.

So, is it hopeless for those who were born super sensitive to pain?

You can train your brain to focus on other things, Coghill said. A prior Wake Forest study on pain and meditation found meditation not only affected people’s ratings of pain, but also their brains’ responses to it.

Ultimately, said Robert Coghill, a professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., “when we have a rich and varied life, that’s going to be a real buffer against pain.”