According to a new study from Stanford Hospital, women may feel pain more intensely than men. The study analyzed the medical records of 11,000 men and women, which included patient’s reports of pain across various conditions and diseases. Researchers found a distinct difference in the level of discomfort men and women noted they felt.
In the study, women and men experiencing the same condition were asked about their pain during each phase of treatment. The majority of responses from both genders clustered around the two extremes of very little pain or extreme pain or the middle score of 5. However, overall, women were more likely to indicate higher pain levels than men during the same phase of treatment for their condition. This rang true among all diseases studied. What accounts for this immense gender difference in pain? Let’s take a look at exactly what sets the threshold for pain at such dissimilar heights for men and women.
Estrogen levels in women drop at certain points of the menstrual cycle, decreasing pain tolerance. In other words, during the week leading up to and following a women’s period, she experiences heightened sensory reactions to pain. In general, high estrogen results in an increase in pain-blocking neurochemicals, whereas pain-producing neurochemicals increase when estrogen falls to low levels.
While testosterone dulls pain by muting the excitatory pain pathways in the central nervous system, estrogen heightens pain by blocking the inhibitory mechanisms that dampen pain sensing.
In today’s society, women are more at risk of having high levels of depression and anxiety. Both of these conditions are known to potentially increase pain perception.
Pain catastrophizing – magnification, rumination, and all-around feelings of hopelessness and despair – also tend to be more prevalent in women than men. Higher pain catastrophizing scores have been found to correlate with greater pain intensity, pain-related disability, and distress.
Subjective and the Social Construct
The amount of pain felt by a woman or a man is, of course, subjective. Similar to how we gauge when a cup of coffee is or isn't "too hot," the same can be said for how we experience and relay pain.
It is noted in the study that the pain women feel could be described as being higher than a man’s simply due to the social construction of men vs. women. Men today are still often expected to suppress certain emotions, and these beliefs may affect not only how much pain they are in, but how pain is expressed, viewed, and responded to.
Further studies and research need to be conducted in the future if we are going to understand not only what the differences between pain experienced by each gender are, but what the implications may be. Pain is a part of all of our lives, and knowing more about how we each experience pain will only help improve the ways we manage it.