The differences between men and women in how they experience pain are fascinating. More so in the sense that this was really not known in recent history. It brings up the fact that even now women are not included in as much research as we should be and a lot about our bodies is a mystery wrapped in an enigma and it turns out we are Not made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Who knew, eh?
- We are more likely to experience chronic pain
- Much more likely therefore to have chronic pain conditions such as migraine, fibromyalgia, IBS (Hold on a minute I have all of those, no fair!) but also autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and so many more. Yay?
- Many of these conditions are the sort that do not show in blood work and tests and therefore can be doubted by medical professionals… and imagine that… when women are in pain… it IS doubted.
- Women often have a longer longevity but tend to have longer time living with disability
Fact: Women are more sensitive to pain
Yet the vast majority of clinical and experimental research shows a surprising finding: females are more sensitive to pain than males. This is true when tested for in the lab. Whether pricked with a pin prick, touched with an electrical probe, exposed to a caustic chemical, or asked to hold a heat probe or dunk their hand in freezing water, the majority of studies show that females experience more pain more quickly than males.Washington post
When it comes to testosterone in some older research it turns out that it reduces sensitivity to distress. And that people transitioning from male to female who get that influx of estrogen and testosterone blockers can then get an increased frequency in migraine attacks (that shouldn’t be much of a surprise since that can be a migraine trigger)
Recent pain work
however, appears to suggest that differences in the immune system mediate differences in how noxious signals travel across the bodies of males and females.Washington post
One theory about chronic pain suggests that men and women may experience chronic pain differently because their bodies may “remember” pain differently. For example, a man and a woman could suffer pain from a ruptured disc, and the man could feel the pain leave as the injury heals, but the woman could continue to feel pain even after healing. The reason could be because men and women, at times, experience different pain paths.Pain Centre
I should also note here there has been research to suggest that women have higher pain thresholds. That although we are more sensitive to pain we tend to forget it readily. “Scientists in Canada were stunned to discover men and women don’t recall past pain in the same way. Their “surprise” findings show while women forget, men don’t. And so when it comes to facing the same pain again, men are more “stressed and hypersensitive” to that pain than women.” (NYpost)
They found that 37 genes in men and 30 genes in women were active in the dorsal root ganglion, a cluster of nerves in the spinal cord that transmit pain signals from the body to the brain.
The study also suggests genetic differences between men and women may affect the immune system and how the two sexes respond to medication.
“Overall, our findings indicate the existence of potential sex differences in chronic pain at multiple levels… and the results support theories of strong nervous system and immune involvement in chronic pain in both sexes,” wrote lead author Keira Johnston of the University of Glasgow. “Our study highlights the importance of considering sex as a biological variable and showed subtle but interesting sex differences in the genetics of chronic pain.”PainNewsWeek
Fact: they don’t really know much about women and pain
Scant research has been performed in understanding women’s pain, and part of that is because of medical researchers’ historical tendency to ignore diseases that exclusively afflict women.
In a survey of medical students and physicians, when asked to rank 38 diseases by how “prestigious” they were considered, fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that predominantly afflicts women, was ranked least prestigious while heart attacks, largely misperceived to predominantly afflict men, were ranked No. 1.Washington post
Fact: Women traditionally were rather excluded from research
Traditionally, men formed the study groups for pain research, since the nervous system seemed common between the sexes. Researchers avoided using women to prevent unknown or unexpected side effects on future pregnancies. However, these discoveries point to the need for expanded pain research.Pain Centre
Research knows a little bit about women’s pain. And it has made some assumptions based on that little bit it has learned but that is about it. It really hasn’t done near enough research to dig into the differences let alone how we respond differently to medications to make any conclusions, that is for sure.
Not that it is exclusive to pain. Research is just starting to realize women respond differently to medication that they only researched on men. And it was not that long ago that they put out there the symptoms women experience for a heart attack… prior to that they assumed it was the same as men.
But the research that Is out there is interesting. Just not enough to say go about with treatment or medication or to confront bias.