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Do Women Really Tolerate Pain Better Than Men?

The science isn't entirely clear on this.

SIGNE CANE
28 AUG 2015
 

The experience of pain is deeply subjective, and tricky to measure. If you've ever complained to a doctor about pain, you're likely familiar with the classic (but arbitrary) rating scale that goes from zero to 10, where zero is "no pain whatsoever" and 10 is "worst and most excruciating suffering imaginable", or something like that. But your answer to this question is actually dependent on many variables - not least your biological sex and gender.

 

When it comes to dealing with pain, two main factors are taken into account: pain threshold and pain tolerance. Pain threshold refers to the point at which a person first starts to sense pain after being exposed to a stimulus, such as the stab of a needle. Even though stimuli can be measured, the experience of pain remains entirely subjective. Meanwhile, pain tolerance refers to the amount of pain one can take without collapsing in agony.

It’s widely thought that women tolerate pain better, thanks to an evolutionary history of having been repeatedly put through the wringer of childbirth. However, in 2012 a team of researchers from Stanford University in the US completed a review of over 11,000 medical records and discovered that women actually tend to feel pain more intensely, particularly when it comes to acute inflammation. Within that zero-to-10 pain rating scale, on average women's pain ratings were almost a point higher than men's. 

But that's only one piece of the puzzle, because the analysis was primarily based on self-reported ratings in a hospital setting. The researchers also didn't have access to information that would help them determine the causes of such differences between the sexes. And they haven't been the only ones looking. 

Back in 2009, a team of researchers from the University of Florida performed a massive literature review of pain-related research studies, and also found that women show greater sensitivity to most forms of pain. They also found that women experience more pain in general - they go to the doctor with pain-related issues more often than men, they take more painkillers, and suffer from more painful ailments, such as lower back pain and migraines.

In experimental settings, it was the men who demonstrated a higher pain threshold, according to the review. An experimental setting here means that someone was deliberately hurting people and asking them how they felt about it. Overall, men were found to be more tolerant of pain than women, at least in the lab. One of the proposed explanations for this is biological - men's bodies usually release more pain-relieving biochemicals, such as beta-endorphins.

So does that mean women actually succumb to pain more easily, and the childbirth connection is a total myth? Not necessarily. As you've already gathered, the experience of pain is vastly subjective. The type of ailment, a person’s mood, and stress can all contribute to the experience; for women hormonal fluctuations throughout their menstrual cycle also influence pain sensitivity, although in individually varied ways.

Social gender roles also play a role in how people report their pain - if men are expected to "tough it out", they might complain less and try to withstand more pain without showing it. As AsapSCIENCE once investigated, we may never know what hurts more - getting kicked in the balls or giving birth.

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