Women and Men Perceive Pain Differently
by Jennifer Wider, MD
(Washington DC, August
25, 2005) Pain seems to affect women and men differently, even at early ages.
Studies have shown that women report pain more often than men. Certain studies
even suggest that women can handle and cope with pain better than their male
As young children, boys
are socialized to cope with pain differently than girls. Boys are expected
to internalize their feelings when they get hurt, while girls aren't expected
to hide their emotions when they're injured. But research has shown that male
and female babies exhibit different responses to pain only hours after birth.
Therefore, other factors must be at play.
Past studies suggest that
men and women use different pathways in the brain when it comes to pain.
"Men and women both have
pain and both can inhibit pain, but may do so by the activation of neural
mechanisms that are different in each sex," said Jeffrey Mogil, Ph.D., who
serves as the E.P. Taylor Professor of Pain Studies at McGill University in
While social expectations
and the brain definitely play a role in pain perception, there are other factors
involved. It has been shown that a woman's pain threshold varies throughout
her menstrual cycle, suggesting a potential role for estrogen and progesterone.
For example, some women with migraine headaches complain that the pain gets
worse during menstruation.
Chronic pain conditions
including osteoarthritis, temporomandibular joint disorder, fibromyalgia and
migraines affect women more frequently than men. "Women feel more pain, seek
help more aggressively, and make more active attempts to cope with pain than
men," said Mark Young, M.D., of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, in his
book "Women and Pain." Pain conditions often hit women harder during their
childbearing years, further suggesting that hormones play a role.
Examining the way pain
medications work may hold the key in understanding the differences between
the sexes. Mogil and colleagues have conducted many studies in the field of
pain genetics, thoroughly researching gender differences in pain perception.
They discovered that certain pain medications actually work better in women
than in men.
Researchers at the University
of California in San Francisco discovered that female patients achieved better
pain control than male patients from kappa opioids, a well-known class of
pain relievers, after surgery to remove their wisdom teeth. In 2000, Australian
researchers at the University of New South Wales showed in a randomized controlled
trial that ibuprofen, the active ingredient in several over-the-counter medications,
works more effectively in men.
It is obvious that the
perception and modulation of pain among women and men differ. But, "we aren't
doing enough to understand and close this gender gap," Young said. More research
is needed to further understand the role that gender plays in the response
to pain and pain relief.
August is National Pain Awareness Month. The observance is sponsored by the
National Pain Foundation and the American Academy of Pain Medicine. You can
learn more by visiting the pain foundation's Web site at www.painconnection.org.
Moir, Anne, and
David Jessel. Brain Sex: The real difference between men and women. Dell,
New York, 1992.
Young, Mark. Women and
Pain: Why It Hurts and What You Can Do. Hyperion, New York, 2001.
The Society for Women's
Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization
whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded
in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate
inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need
for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates
increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex
differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease,
and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica
Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its
Board of Directors.
Created: 8/25/2005  - Donnica Moore, M.D.