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Do women experience more pain than men?

Wendy Williams, associate director of the Pain Research, Education and Policy Program, responds
March 9, 2011

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The answer seems to be that they do. Many studies indicate that women notice pain at lower stimulus thresholds than men, and cannot tolerate pain as long as men. Even after experiencing the same surgical procedures, women report more intense pain than men.

These differences might be related to hormone levels, specifically estrogen and related hormones. Some studies indicate a pattern of increased sensitivity to pain prior to the menstrual phase. This seems to occur across various painful conditions, ranging from irritable bowel syndrome and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) to headaches.

Even after experiencing the same surgical procedures, women report more intense pain than men. Photo: iStockThe work reinforces other findings, such as that during pregnancy, when estrogen levels are high, women experience less pain from migraines and TMD. These studies are a recent advance over traditional research, which predominantly used male mice and rats and overlooked the importance of gender.

Another theory being studied is that women experience more pain because they are genetically predisposed to be on the alert for impending danger, especially to protect their offspring. Related to that is the idea that women in our culture have more freedom to express pain than men, which might play a role in how women actually sense painful stimuli. There is also a question as to whether females express pain sooner to engage others to give support. The theory is that females utilize the social connections they have for coping in general, so expressing their distress around pain may be a way to signal others that they need support.

Regardless of the roles that hormones or sex differences may exert on the perception of pain, the social pressure to be “a nice patient” should never cause a woman to suffer in silence if she has new symptoms or if ongoing treatment for an existing problem is inadequate.

The Pain Research, Education and Policy Program is based at the Tufts School of Medicine.

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