When it comes to pain, there are acknowledged differences between women and men.
What clinical practitioners and researchers know is that women report pain more often and report pain of a greater intensity than men. Women with chronic pain (pain lasting more than 6 months with no discernable relief from treatment), experience it more often, for longer duration and with greater intensity. Women also exhibit a lower tolerance for pain, as well as, lower pain threshold level.
Other notable difference may include:
- experiencing multiple pain conditions leading to related psychological stress and disability
- connecting more emotionally than physically to pain
- encountering different side effects from analgesics
While these differences are apparent, researchers are considering a number of other possibilities such as …
- Smaller body size
- Hormone fluctuations over a lifetime
- Available access to treatment
- Interaction with treatment practitioner
- Treatment protocol based on drugs primarily tested on men
One of the questions also raised is do women really feel more pain or do they just report more pain. In trying to understand pain and how it affects women, researchers are looking for a more objective indicator of pain. The primary problem is that pain is assessed on self report, using a scale of 1-10 to indicate level of pain. However, the self report scale is not always consistent and reliable as an indicator of intensity, but is helpful in determining if medication or treatment has been effective.
Stanford School of Medicine is looking for some form of biomarker as a pain indicator. Using electronic medical records shows women report more pain across a range of diseases and in some areas not previously viewed as gender differences (read more about electronic medical records).
Cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Flavia Mancini, at the University College London is using brain image pain mapping as an indicator. Brain imaging could correlate location and intensity of pain. It’s suggested that besides enhancing pain treatment and determining drug effectiveness, it would also indicate if women really experience more pain than men. (read more about brain image pain mapping).
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Pain Research says
My physician says women have a higher tolerance for pain, not lower, and a higher pain threshold. My experience is the same. This does make those of us (like me for instance), who suffer from chronic pain, sound whiny and overly sensitive.
Linda Ursin says
Strange. My physician says women have a higher tolerance for pain, not lower, and a higher pain threshold. My experience is the same. This does make those of us (like me for instance), who suffer from chronic pain, sound whiny and overly sensitive.
Joyce Hansen says
Thanks for sharing your experience. I should have been more specific in explaining pain threshold and tolerance. I’ve given the Wikipedia definitions and I hope this clarifies the terminology.
“The threshold of pain is the point at which pain begins to be felt. It is an entirely subjective phenomenon. The intensity at which a stimulus (e.g., heat, pressure) begins to evoke pain is the threshold intensity. So, if a hotplate on a person’s skin begins to hurt at 42°C (107°F), then that is the pain threshold temperature for that bit of skin at that time. 42°C is not the pain threshold, it is the temperature at which the pain threshold was crossed.
The intensity at which a stimulus begins to evoke pain varies from individual to individual and for a given individual over time.”
“Pain tolerance is the maximum level of pain that a person is able to tolerate. Pain tolerance is distinct from pain threshold (the point at which pain begins to be felt).
 Factors affecting pain tolerance
Clinical studies by the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that “men had higher pain thresholds and tolerances and lower pain ratings than women” when exposed to cold pressor pain. The study asked participants to submerge their hands in ice water (the cold pressor pain procedure) and were compensated financially for keeping their hand submerged. Suggested explanations for this difference include that “men are more motivated to tolerate and suppress expressions of pain because of the masculine sex role, whereas the feminine sex role encourages pain expression and produces lower motivation to tolerate pain among women.”
A similar study published in the same journal focused on the effects of having individuals perform the ice water procedure while accompanied by another participant. Their results revealed that “Participants in the active support and passive support conditions reported less pain than participants in the alone and interaction conditions, regardless of whether they were paired with a friend or stranger. These data suggest that the presence of an individual who provides passive or active support reduces experimental pain.”