He Feels, She Feels: How Pain Affects Men and Women Differently

He Feels, She Feels: How Pain Affects Men and Women Differently

Common wisdom says that men are big babies when it comes to pain, but what does science say?

Pain. It’s a fact of life. Burning, stabbing, throbbing, sharp, dull—these are some of the words people use to describe pain. But what exactly is pain? Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.

Some human experiences are universal, and pain is one of them. And while everyone feels varying degrees of physical pain throughout their lives, a growing body of research suggests that men and women feel pain differently.

Why might this be? And what does it mean for your health, whether you’re a man or a woman? Here are some theories—and the evidence that backs them up.

Measuring pain
There are two important measurements when it comes to pain: threshold and tolerance. Pain threshold is the point where someone becomes aware of pain, and pain tolerance is how well someone deals with pain.

The trouble is, pain is very subjective. When people seek medical help for pain, healthcare providers often use a pain rating scale, in which patients are asked to rate their level of discomfort on a scale of 0 to 10. Zero means no pain, while 10 is the worst possible pain.

The perception of pain is going to be different for everyone. But when it comes to men and women, some research suggests that men have higher pain tolerance, higher pain threshold and lower pain scores than women.

How pain is experienced
It was long thought that women were better able to withstand pain; after all, they’re the ones who go through childbirth. But research is beginning to show that that’s not the case.

One study, published in 2012 in Journal of Pain, looked at 11,000 medical records. The researchers analyzed pain scores from a number of pain conditions. For the majority of diagnoses, women reported higher pain scores than men. Some of these included:

  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Leg pain
  • Joint pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sinusitis
  • Hernia
  • HIV

Another Journal of Pain paper, this one from 2009, reviewed studies on gender differences in experimental pain—where researchers would subject men and women to pain and rate their threshold, tolerance or pain score. Men had greater thresholds and tolerance, and women had greater pain scores in the majority of studies for pressure pain, electrical pain, heat pain and cold pain.

Pain conditions and women
Not only does the research suggest that women report higher pain scores from a number of sources, but women are also more at risk for developing some chronic pain-causing diseases. Women are diagnosed more often than men for:

Hormonal causes
There are a number of factors that may be at play in the gender differences of pain. One is that the sex hormones like testosterone, estrogen and progesterone may affect the perception of pain.

Some research suggests that levels of pain from headache, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome go up and down during the menstrual cycle as female hormones fluctuate, although other research suggests there’s no link.

In addition, a similar number of boys and girls before puberty have migraines and jaw pain conditions, but both jump way up for girls after they hit puberty.

Social norms
There may also be social factors and conditioning between the sexes that play a part in pain perception. One possibility is that men may be unwilling to talk about their pain for fear of looking weak. A 2012 meta-analysis published in European Journal of Pain suggests that gender roles encourage people to view tolerating pain with masculinity, and a vulnerability to pain with femininity. These are learned social behaviors rather than biological differences between the sexes.

Differences in treatment
Many of these results could mean women are troubled more from pain and need more treatment, but by some accounts the opposite is happening.

A 2008 study of almost 1,000 people admitted to an emergency room for abdominal pain, published in Academic Emergency Medicine shows some gender disparity in pain treatment. Women were 13 to 25 percent less likely than men to receive opioids, though no less likely than men to receive non-opioid painkillers in general. When women did receive painkillers, they waited an average of 16 minutes longer than men.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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