Are you a low pain threshold person? And can you teach yourself to toughen up?

Gareth Rubin
As Neymar is accused of going down too easily, just what is the score with tolerance levels? - Getty Images Europe

No pain, no gain, so the saying goes. Unless, of course, you're a professional footballer, rolling around on the grass because you bumped into another player. In fact, one of the defining images of this year's World Cup has been Brazil's talisman, Neymar, lying on the deck, his face contorted in agony. Football statisticians have even calculated that he spent almost 14 minutes of Brazil's five matches writhing on the turf.

So does Neymar, as Gary Lineker observed recently, really have "the lowest pain threshold of any player in World Cup history"? And are some of us really more sensitive to pain than others? What's more, is it even possible to teach yourself to feel less pain?

Pain threshold is defined as the level of pain stimulus at which you begin to notice it. Pain tolerance is how much you can take. And among the myths about both, there are also a few strange truths: you can hypnotise yourself to blot out pain; some people simply feel no pain at all; you feel it less in your dominant hand; and redheads have higher tolerance. (Well, sort of - we'll get back to that later.)

For anyone wanting know how to improve our pain experience, first we need to understand how pain works. There are two parts: there is the signal from an affected body part, that runs up the spinal column to the brain; and then there is the brain's interpretation and response to that signal. And it's entirely possible to consciously change that latter part.

People have a higher pain tolerance in their stronger hand; so if you're planning to injure yourself, you're better off doing it on the dominant side of your body Credit: Getty Images

Professor Lesley Colvin, a consultant in pain medicine at the University of Dundee, says: "In terms of raising your pain threshold, you can try cognitive behavioural therapy, distraction techniques, mindfulness or hypnosis. Regular exercise is also known to raise thresholds by releasing endorphins." And why do some people naturally have higher pain thresholds than others? "There are a number of factors," she says. "Previous life experience and cultural or societal factors - if your partner is too nice, then your experience of pain may be worse. So that's an excuse not to pander to man-flu."

Genetics also is a factor, which brings us to the common claim that people with red hair have a higher pain threshold. The fact is that there's certainly a link, but it is not so clear-cut. Red hair is caused by a mutation in the melanocortin-1 receptor gene, and this gene also affects pain sensitivity.

Curiously, studies suggest redheads are more susceptible to dental pain but less susceptible to pinpricks, and they also have a higher resistance to anaesthetics and analgesics. So it seems that redheads may not feel less pain overall, but do feel it differently to the rest of the population.

Pain threshold and tolerance are far more elastic than people imagine

Some people are born utterly unable to feel pain, however. And while it sounds like this might make them ideal crime-fighting or supervillain material (Bond villain Renard, in The World is Not Enough, feels no pain due to a bullet lodged in his cranium), congenital insensitivity to pain is in reality a serious and potentially deadly condition, because the sufferer fails to notice injuries or internal problems.

For the rest of us, it's possible to consciously reduce our experience of pain using cognitive methods. Before effective medical analgesics - painkillers - were made common, if you were undergoing a painful but minor operation you might have been induced to undergo "mesmerism" to raise your tolerance. Nowadays, hypnosis has been refined, rationalised, explained and is recognised as an effective technique for pain control.

"Hypnosis is understanding the mind-body connection, that ideas are physiological events in the body, and it marshals that," says Mark Davis, director of the UK College of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy.

ROLLING AROUND: But do footballers like Neymar suffer more? Credit: JASON CAIRNDUFF/REUTERS

So should Neymar, and other crybaby footballers, try using self-hypnosis to convince himself that the pain has faded? "Absolutely. Of course, you don't want to be running around the football field with a broken rib, but pain threshold and tolerance are far more elastic than people imagine. You can use self-hypnosis to change the meaning of the pain. If your idea of pain is, 'it's not an important message in my nervous system' then you pay less attention and your experience is different. If you're not aware of it, you're not experiencing it."

It's a technique that works for a wide variety of people, adds Prof Colvin. "You might assume that people who use hypnosis or mindfulness are those who like alternative therapies," she says. "But I've seen a senior consultant successfully teach the techniques to a rough-as-anything former coal miner."

Finally, it's worth noting that pain tolerance isn't even distributed evenly within our own bodies.

According to a study from the University of Haifa in Israel, people have a higher tolerance in their stronger hand; so if you're planning to injure yourself, you're better off doing it on the dominant side of your body. The multi-talented, two-footed Neymar, of course, doesn't have a stronger side. Perhaps that's why it hurts so much.