New research on the association between pain thresholds and social networks suggests that having a larger circle of friends may enable better tolerance of pain. The mechanism is thought to involve endorphins in the brain, higher levels of which have been linked to higher pain tolerance. Researchers from University of Oxford hypothesized that the same endorphin system may both modulate pain levels and encourage social interaction, the latter having evolved due to its importance for food gathering, common defense and survival. In both men and women, the team found that larger social networks were linked to a greater ability to tolerate pain. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The study examined 101 adults, aged 18 to 34 years. Via questionnaire, they were assessed for social contacts on a weekly and monthly basis, as well as for personality traits such as agreeableness. Subjects also rated their fitness and stress levels. As a test of pain tolerance they were asked to engage in an exercise designed to promote discomfort for as long as they could. Researchers found that it was the number of friends contacted monthly, rather than weekly, that had the most effect on pain tolerance ability. The findings support previous observations linking endorphin activity to social interactions, but does not illuminate the reason for individual differences. One theory suggested by the authors is that genetics variations can affect the density of endorphin receptors in the brain. A news story discussing the research may be read here. The journal article may be read here.