News & Research

Men & Women Experience Pain Differently

Common wisdom is that women are much less sensitive to pain than men are. Childbirth is pointed to as the ultimate example of this. But it doesn’t appear to be true.

An increasing body of evidence shows that men and women process pain differently in their nervous systems and act on it differently, according to a Washington Post article. Conclusions of a 1998 National Institutes of Health panel on pain served as a springboard for further research into the topic. Among the findings mentioned in the article are that women report pain more than do men, areas of male and female brains react differently to pain, and anatomical differences in the brains of men and women could be a factor.

An accompanying graphic illustrates the findings of recent studies that show differences in the ways that men and women experience pain.

Interesting stuff — as long as no one uses it as proof that women are weaker than men.

1 thought on “Men & Women Experience Pain Differently”

  1. This is vastly oversimplified. (Well, ok, it’s a newspaper…) But I trust this blog readership to be more sophisticated than the sixth grade level general readership a newspaper shoots for. So.

    Most of the studies that have recently emerged have indeed shown a difference in pain processing between men and women. The major difference is that pain processing in women fluctuates with estrogen levels. (Estrogen–it’s our theme of the week, isn’t it? 🙂

    Some of the studies available are simplistic and misleading–lab animals were injected with estrogen, and pain thresholds decreased, which led researchers to conclude that therefore, women were weak, and couldn’t tolerate pain as well as men. (Can anyone say, “Researcher bias”?)

    But if you think this through, it is counter-intuitive. It makes no sense. Pregnant women have very high estrogen levels–estogen levels climb throughout pregnancy, until they are very high by the time labor begins.

    And menstrually-associated headaches occur when estrogen levels are at their lowest–the day before menstruation begins is the most common day for a menstrual migraine, and that is the day for a drop in estrogen.

    Dr. Nancy E.J. Berman, who has done very important research on the effects of hormones on trigeminal neurons and the effects on orofacial pain, TMD, migraine and fibromyalgia, and who won the Wolff Award this year from the American Headache Society, also wrote the chapter on “Sex Hormones” in the book, The Headaches. She has noted that migraine improves both during pregnancy, when estrogen is high, and after menopause, when estrogen is low. She feels that this suggests that it is rapid changes in estrogen and progesterone that serve as a trigger for migraine attacks.

    Some studies suggest that women tolerate pain better than men when estrogen levels are higher, and less well than men when estrogen levels drop–we are still discovering whether it is the rate of drop that is critical (likely), or whether it is also the estrogen:progesterone ratio that has an effect.

    Other studies have shown that postmenopausal women process pain similarly to men.

    I will say this, though: when I do Botox injections in the office, it’s generally not the women who get faint on me. 😉

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