How do individual and cultural influences affect the perception of pain?
Deficiency in endorphins explain a principle physiological mechanisms of why some people feel extreme pain from slight abrasions while others experience a complete lack of pain sensation.
It is important to recognize that physiological mechanisms only explain pain sensation in a limited sense. Although the specific biological processes of these pathways are not well understood, the role of culture and past and present experiences impact how pain is perceived. The example of labor and childbirth provided by Bloom, Nelson and Lazerson (2001) explain how pain stemming from one event can range from minimal to extreme depending on the prior role of socialization and cultural learning. In many cultures childbirth is not dreaded but rather a natural occurrence that simply takes place amidst the schedule of daily life, while western societies for example have come to fear childbirth. The Lamaze method is a natural childbirth curriculum created for Western cultures due to the fear mechanism that has been instilled regarding labor and delivery. Fear changes muscle tone and breathing patterns that do make childbirth more painful, therefore the Lamaze method teaches breathing control and muscle strengthening which is simply to combat the instilled cultural fears and preconceptions. As shown by this example, pain modification also occurs in large part through learning.
This same learning mechanism is seen in animals, as exhibited by Ivan Pavlovís research. Dogs that were always given food following a strong electric shock stopped showing signs of pain but rather salivated from the shock due to the expectation of the food.
In general the west emphasizes pain as a complete negative, where elimination is always seen as ideal. Minor headaches for example are often alleviated with a pill rather then initially resorting to drinking more water or evaluating other recent events, behaviors or activities. The Nielson calculations estimated (in billions) over-the-counter painkiller sales in the United States, stating that in 1999, sales exceeded 18.9 whereas for comparison, ten years prior in 1989 sales were almost half that at 9.7, which also consequently had doubled from 1979 when sales were estimated at 4.9 (Consumer Healthcare Products Association, 2007). More recent data does exist through the Nielsen calculations, however Wal-Mart sales are eliminated and thus the results are incomplete in accurately estimating the entirety of sales.
The painkiller and childbirth examples show in part how the United States has embarked on a trend to demonize pain. †These cultural influences may potentially cause an over sensitization in pain detection and lessened tolerance over time. †