The effect of culture on pain sensitivity

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Cross-cultural differences in pain sensitivity have been identified in pain-free subjects as well as in chronic pain patients. The aim was to assess the impact of culture on psychophysical measures using mechanical and electrical stimuli in patients with temporomandibular disorder (TMD) pain and pain-free matched controls in three cultures. This case–control study compared 122 female cases of chronic TMD pain (39 Saudis, 41 Swedes and 42 Italians) with equal numbers of age- and gender-matched TMD-free controls. Pressure pain threshold (PPT) and tolerance (PPTo) were measured over one hand and two masticatory muscles. Electrical perception threshold and electrical pain threshold (EPT) and tolerance (EPTo) were recorded between the thumb and index fingers. Italian females reported significantly lower PPT in the masseter muscle than other cultures (P< 0·001) and in the temporalis muscle than Saudis (P= 0·003). Swedes reported significantly higher PPT in the thenar muscle than other cultures (P= 0·017). Italians reported significantly lower PPTo in all muscles than Swedes (P≤ 0·006) and in the masseter muscle than Saudis (P< 0·001). Italians reported significantly lower EPTo than other cultures (P= 0·01). Temporomandibular disorder cases, compared to TMD-free controls, reported lower PPT and PPTo in all the three muscles (P< 0·001). This study found cultural differences between groups in the PPT, PPTo and EPTo. Overall, Italian females reported the highest sensitivity to both mechanical and electrical stimulation, while Swedes reported the lowest sensitivity. Mechanical pain thresholds differed more across cultures than did electrical pain thresholds. Cultural factors may influence response to type of pain test.

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