Individual differences in pain sensitivity: genetic and environmental contributions

Pain. 2008 May;136(1-2):21-9. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2007.06.008. Epub 2007 Aug 9.


Large individual differences in pain sensitivity present a challenge for medical diagnosis and may be of importance for the development of chronic pain. Variance in pain sensitivity is partially mediated by genetic factors, but the extent of this contribution is uncertain. We examined cold-pressor pain and contact heat pain in 53 identical (MZ) and 39 fraternal (DZ) twin pairs, and 4 single twins to determine the heritability of the two phenotypes, and the extent to which the same genetic and environmental factors affect both pain modalities. An estimated 60% of the variance in cold-pressor pain and 26% of the variance in heat pain was genetically mediated. Genetic and environmental factors were only moderately correlated across pain modalities. Genetic factors common to both modalities explained 7% of the variance in cold-pressor and 3% of the variance in heat pain. Environmental factors common to both modalities explained 5% of variance in cold-pressor and 8% of the variance in heat pain. The remaining variance was due to factors that were specific to each pain modality. These findings demonstrate that cold-pressor pain and contact heat pain are mainly distinct phenomena from both a genetic and an environmental standpoint. This may partly explain disparate results in genetic association studies and argues for caution in generalizing genetic findings from one pain modality to another. It also indicates that differences in pain scale usage account for a minor portion of the variance, providing strong support for the validity of subjective pain ratings as measures of experienced pain.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Twin Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cold Temperature / adverse effects
  • Environment*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Male
  • Pain / genetics*
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain Measurement / methods*
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Pain Threshold / psychology
  • Physical Stimulation / methods
  • Twins, Dizygotic / genetics
  • Twins, Dizygotic / psychology
  • Twins, Monozygotic / genetics
  • Twins, Monozygotic / psychology