I ain't got time for little piggies.
April 18, 2012 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Picture it: Brock "The Python" McMacho, three-time MMA middle-weight champion, retired Navy SEAL and two-time recipient of the Purple Heart, blearily stumbles to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He stubs his toe. Does it hurt? Does it hurt as much as it would hurt me, a big softie?

I'm no tough guy. When I stub my toe, or get a paper cut, or burn myself on a hot piece of toast, I whimper like a puppy made of kittens.

I expect that a Navy SEAL or other macho (or "feminacho") type person is trained to work through the pains they encounter. But does that mean a super-tough tough guy doesn't want to just die then and there when he stubs his pinky toe into the dresser at 3:27 in the morning?

Does it hurt? Does it not hurt? Does it hurt, but they just don't react?

I've often wondered, but I know no tough guys/gals I can ask. I'm surrounded by nerds. Nerds, I say, nerds everywhere!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I assume most of his toes have been broken. If they are not completely numb, I assume it hurts in a different way.

I'm not tough, but I've been kicking stuff (Bags, wood, people) for 20 years. Most of my toes are fractured or broken. When I stub my toe, it hurts in a all sorts of different ways.
posted by bleucube at 12:48 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmm. I am amused and intrigued by your question.

I am not a tough anything, by any stretch of the imagination. I have a desk job and swear vociferously when toe pain is involved. But I know that when I am regularly and rigorously physically active, my pain threshold for things like paper cuts and toe stubs goes way up.

I've thought about this quite a bit (I was even thinking about this yesterday, as a matter of fact), and near as I can figure, if you are physically stimulated often and intensely, your nerve volume gets turned down on smaller sensations. I'm not saying you can't still enjoy a light breeze through your hair, but something about pain sensation decreases if your feet are actively used all day, rather than encased in Hush Puppies and tucked under your desk.
posted by Specklet at 12:55 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pain is completely subjective.
posted by Aquaman at 12:57 PM on April 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

Maybe it hurts, but he doesn't yelp out in pain since, you know, that might give you away if you're sneaking around the enemy.

Or if there's an infant asleep in the room, and you're coming back from the bathroom all ninja-like, only to clobber the corner of the damned cedar chest again. That will also train you to suppress a hysterical reaction.
posted by jquinby at 12:59 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is something you see people talking about a lot that occasionally makes its way into the newspapers, the perception of pain and how it compares to some level of "absolute" pain. Here is a textbook that I was just browsing after looking up some studies: Pathophysiology of Pain Perception talks a lot about how they do these studies in rats and what you need to think about when doing pain perception studies in humans. The $10 word there is nociception, our responses to harmful stimulus.

So there are things like how we feel about the pain [how much something hurts in our perceptions] but also how we've been socialized to respond to pain [how we feel we are supposed to respond to that level of hurting]. You can read a bit more about it in this article about childbirth and pain and the difference, if there is any, between the sexes. A few quotations...
“This question is really key,” admits (Professor Jennifer) Graham. “Boys typically learn that they are expected to be tough and not complain about pain. One study, conducted by researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, found that men reported less pain in the presence of a female experimenter than they did in the presence of a male.”

But the most confounding problem may be the complex nature of pain itself.

“Pain is inherently subjective,” says Graham. “We typically rely on self-report to know if someone is experiencing it.” And it’s tough to determine how much of pain is sensory and how much is influenced by psychological factors, she adds. “The limbic system of the brain, which is related to emotion, is typically active in response to physical pain for both men and women. In fact, looking at functional MRI, it can be difficult to distinguish psychological pain—such as that caused by social exclusion—from pain that is purely physical.”

Sociocultural and psychological influences seem to have a greater impact than any inherent biological factor, believes Graham. Pain lights up our nerves and our brains in ways that are more alike than different. “Overall, I think it’s important to know that men and women respond similarly to pain at a biological level.”
Here's another article, same topic dealing with gender differences. Not that I'm hung up on gender differences myself, but those articles both explain a little bit about the different things that go into someone saying "This hurts" to someone else which is mostly what you have in the scenario you've created. You'd have a situation where someone has better tolerance to pain but that might or might not mean they're experiencing the same absolute pain that you would be. Short answer: it's complicated.
posted by jessamyn at 1:02 PM on April 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

It would hurt. How much is subjective. There are methods of pain management and maybe he would know a lot about this but that's only managing pain, not making it so you don't feel it.

The key difference, in my estimation, would be how he handles it. His reaction would likely be confined to going "Augh, fuck!" and that'd be that. Most of the super-tough guys I've known tend to treat sudden, sharp pain as something at which to get mildly angry for a second.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:17 PM on April 18, 2012

So so complicated and subjective. I'm sure that Mr. McMacho is bothered by this pain, but he can probably compare it to past wrestly/navy SEALy hurts (maybe thinking, this isn't so bad), and go about his bidness knowing that it will go away eventually. He is equipped to cope mentally with the pain from past experience.

I play a full contact sport. I always have a few bruises somewhere, a permanent bump on my shin, and have torn a few knee ligaments. These small pains are a reminder of all the fun I'm having, and I can deal with them easily most of the time. If it's bad, I take something or go see a doctor. I know that quick flares of pain (like stubbing your toe) will go away (especially if you know what to do-- rest! ice! compression! elevation!). I find that I don't fear pain as much as I used to; for example, I'm not nervous about getting shots.

My sister says I have a better pain tolerance than her, but I think I'm better at distracting my brain from the pain. When I get hurt, it's more of a wait-and-see-if-it-still-hurts-in-ten-minutes reaction than an immeidate FUCK OW REALTEARS reaction.

p.s. thank you for bringing the word feminacho to my attention. Makes sense that it was coined to describe a roller girl :)
posted by stompadour at 1:35 PM on April 18, 2012

The type of pain may make a difference.
I went through sciatica HELL from 3 herniated disks/spine surgery and have survived several full contact Muay Thai fights OK but...
Years ago someone slammed a van door on my kneecap and I just passed out likely from the pain.. (i was a little drunk, but it did not seem to help)
There was no significant structural damage to the knee, It just hurt like hell, than turned my lights out for a few min.
Tricky Science Pain Is..
posted by Studiogeek at 1:58 PM on April 18, 2012

Pain is subjective, but when a fighter is fighter he is filled with adrenaline, which makes ignoring pain much easier. I bet stubbing his toe unexpectedly makes him act the same way it does you, unless there's some physical deformity dulling it.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:58 PM on April 18, 2012

When I break stuff, or my lungs collapse, or loggers fell trees on me (or whatever), and I have to go to hospital, and the nurse asks what my pain level is on a scale of one to ten, I always put on my strained tough guy face, and say.. "Well it's pretty bad right now.. maybe an 8 or 9". And I get better drugs that way.

But being serious about it - I grew up mostly barefoot, so had toes that stuck way out sideways. As I got older and stopped doing all that regular kid stuff that requires high levels of balance (equilibrioception) and combined proprioception and exteroception, I started bumping into stuff and breaking those toes. The first few times were all "Oh my fucken god that hurts like a motherfucker!" and I made a big fuss and went to the doctor and got the little buggers all taped up. But then, over time, I got over it. It still happens occasionally (even though the taping has angled them in a bit), but now I barely notice it.

The sense of something breaking (interoception?) and there being pain (nociception, as Jessamyn points out above) is still present but my subjective experience of that pain is minimal. I really do barely notice.

Which makes me think previous experience of similar pain might be a major determining factor in how each of us experiences individual instances of pain.

So I reckon it might be the same for actual tough guys. If they've had broken bones before they're gonna go, "yeah, whatever". If they haven't, they'll be rolling around on the ground calling for a medic.
posted by Ahab at 2:04 PM on April 18, 2012

Here's a paper on the topic, mentioned in a part of Dan Ariely's last book that dealt a little with this topic. Briefly: severely injured war veterans had higher pain tolerance than less severely injured veterans.
posted by MadamM at 2:08 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's also likely that Mr. Macho will utter all sorts of expletives in order to dull his pain.
posted by blurker at 2:15 PM on April 18, 2012

The thing that I've noticed when I've been really injured (ie: broken bones, ACJ separation, etc) is that it doesn't really hurt that much, but that my thinking starts to change in weird ways. So it's not
"that hurts, I should go to the emergency room", it's "I'm not able to process all my inputs, I should go to the emergency room".

Stubbing my pinky toe into the dresser at 2:37 in the morning: "ow. fuck. ow. damn it. ow. son of a.". Skate park crash into concrete (yes, I was wearing my helmet, and I didn't hit my head): "huh, this doesn't hurt as much as it should, but I'm having to consciously focus, I should think about an emergency room trip".

I don't know if it's confirmation or not, but the outlier is a broken rib: Hurt like hell, I had trouble breathing, my wife found me gasping and wheezing for help. Of course the emergency room visit answer was "have some painkillers, deal with it", so maybe that's just confirmation that it wasn't actually a major injury (And I think I'm hilarious on Vicodin, which made me laugh, which meant that Vicodin was not working as a painkiller).
posted by straw at 3:16 PM on April 18, 2012

Pain is also subjective within a single person based on their mood. The worse you're feeling, the more it hurts. So if he was grumpy and annoyed that he seems to be waking up more and more in the middle of the night and worried about getting old, and the stubbed toe catches him in the middle of a flash of mid-life crisis, he might actually holler out loud in pain.
posted by grog at 3:24 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was in high school, about 40 years ago, I got into a friendly game of keep-away one time. I had the ball, and someone from the other team rushed me, and I threw it quickly, lost my balance, fell backwards, and stopped myself with my arms.

One of my forearms broke completely, and the two lower parts of the bones shoved past the two upper parts.

It didn't hurt. It just went numb. I held my arm using my other hand, and walked inside and showed it to a teacher. He did his best to immobilize it, and tried to reach my parents, and eventually he took me to the hospital. It still didn't hurt. Not even a little bit.

Later, in college, I learned about the Sympathetic Nervous System. I thought I was just having fun, but my body thought I was in a battle. Immobilizing me with pain during a battle could lead to me dying, so my body suppressed the pain. (See also Endorphins.)

The Sympathetic Nervous System strongly influences our perception of pain, but it isn't under our conscious control, and it isn't always obvious what sets it off.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:36 PM on April 18, 2012

Yeah, nthing that it is super subjective. I had the anaesthesia wear off during a root canal AND during a troublesome extraction, and while it was fucking agonizing and awful it is still not as bad as when I bang my knee on the corner of the coffee table. The first two made me make occasional insanity wolf growls of pain, but the latter makes me grey out a bit and almost piss myself.
posted by elizardbits at 3:51 PM on April 18, 2012

I bet there's a reverse effect from what you are thinking about too. I expect the sort of person who has a low pain threshold and hates getting hurt is less likely to go into the army, or play tough-guy sports or do any of those other things that makes him/her super macho. So yes, I expect tough-guys experience less pain from stubbing a toe, but that's because they never really did experience pain to be too debilitating, which led them to become tough-guys in the first place.
posted by lollusc at 4:34 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am going to agree with people above mentioning that real pain from real injuries, broken bones etc (even childbirth in my experience) doesn't "hurt" like stubbing a toe. The system seems to stop sending pain signals when things are really bad. I find that a really good (bad?) toe stub is about the most amount of pain that can be fit in 10 seconds. So, in answer to your question, I think tough guy will feel intense pain, curse, then walk it off like he's trained to do while the rest of us whimper in the dark.
posted by saradarlin at 5:11 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

From personal experience, I'd say that the shock of stubbing the toe would be much more powerful than any sensation of pain. I was a complete wimp as a kid, I'd skin my knee and cry. I was really, really bad with pain. Then, in college, my disc issues began, and I had three surgeries in the space of two years (the second one was for a staph infection that almost killed me and required a shunt in my neck for daily doses of antibiotics). I've still got lingering issues (the third surgery was needed because of a car accident, and the herniated disc material evidently wrapped itself around my spinal cord), and haven't had a pain free day since my early twenties.

I'm a lot better with pain than I used to be. It hurts, it's just more bearable, because I've known much, much worse than that toe stubbing.

In some ways, too, cooking has helped. I burn myself all the time. I cut myself all the time, too. When I was younger, it was agony. Now, it's something that's happened, and we'll be moving on now. To me, pain is something you can get used to, that you can learn to cope with. In other words, just keep stubbing your toe. At some point, you won't notice it quite so much.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:42 PM on April 18, 2012

Toes seem to be extra sensitive.

I have long toes, and three times now I have gone to the ER thinking the same one (second toe, right foot) had definitely broken This Time. Hurting like hot fire, last joint sticking out funny, turning purple-black, the whole deal. X-rays show a negative, my wife goes "tsk, tsk," and I put on shoes for a few days (and hang my head in shame for being shown a wimp again)

Of course, since I didn't go last time, the middle joint now no longer bends at all. *sigh* I guess it really was broken that time!
posted by wenestvedt at 7:51 AM on April 19, 2012

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