Women More Adept Than Men At Discerning Pain

Women May Be More Adept Than Men At Discerning Pain : Shots – Health News : NPR – August 26, 2019 – Patti Neighmond  – Twitter

I like this article because it has links to reputable sources, like PubMed abstracts from the NIH. Unfortunately, it starts out with the usual trope:

The pathway to opioid abuse for women often starts with a prescription from the doctor’s office. [wrong, wrong, wrong…]

This is an outdated and completely incorrect myth of anti-opioid propaganda. The CDC data clearly shows that pain patients taking prescribed (for them) opioids account for only a minuscule number of the opioid overdoses, as I have posted previously: 

But the rest of the article goes on to explore an interesting angle: pain perception is influenced by the biological gender of a person, indicating a biological source for pain perception.

One reason is that women are more likely than men to seek help for pain. (https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/prescriptionpainkilleroverdoses/index.html)

Maybe that’s because we’re built a bit less sturdy and strong than men and our bodies are more sensitive and avoidant of pain.

Men were the hunters and fighters who had to survive horrible injuries, pain sensitivity would be a disaster.

Women may have developed greater pain sensitivity to alert them to potential problems in their bodies and motivate them to deal with them somehow.  Greater pain sensitivity would make them live more cautiously, avoiding anything that might be damaging her most valuable asset: the creation of new humans.

Pain researchers say that not only do women suffer more painful conditions, they actually perceive pain more intensely than men do. (http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2003/Exploring-the-Biological-Contributions-to-Human-Health-Does-Sex-Matter/DoesSexMatter8pager.pdf)

“The burden of pain is substantially greater for women than men,” says researcher and psychologist Roger Fillingim, For more than two decades, Fillingim has been studying gender differences and pain.

He recruits healthy male and female volunteers to take part in experimental pain sessions using various painful stimuli, including pressure, heat, cold and electrical stimulation.

  • Probes are typically applied to the hand or arm.
  • As intensity of the stimuli is increased, volunteers are asked to rate their pain on a scale of zero to 10, where zero is no pain and 10 is the most intense pain one can imagine.
  • If volunteers report pain levels at 10, Fillingim stops the experiment immediately.

What kind of person would volunteer for such a study?

These are NOT “average people volunteering to be hurt, so any findings from such a group of self-selected subjects would not apply to most people, especially when it involves the perception of pain from willingly letting another person hurt them, more and more, to find at what point it becomes unbearable.

I can’t think of anyone who would let a researcher keep increasing their pain until it even gets close to a level 10. For these people, is the “worst pain you’ve ever had” really a researcher giving them an electric or heat stimulus?

They’d have to be cutting my arm with a dull knife for me to get to level 10, which I experienced while undergoing surgery without anesthetic. Nothing has ever surpassed that and I’m convinced I’d rather die than go through anything worse.

In comparing the responses between women and men, he says the findings in his studies and those in other pain research are consistent.

“On average, women report the same stimuli to be more painful than men,” Fillingim says, emphasizing that the same stimulus is applied to everybody, so if there are differences in how painful the experience is, it can’t be because of the stimulus because it’s calibrated to be the same for all.

“experiencing an exquisitely painful event is just a different question than whether or not men and women differ in their pain responses.”

I’m so glad to see this recognized, that “experiencing an exquisitely painful event” is very different from the painful trudge through constant “pain stimulus” every day and probably forever.

That would be a welcome development according to psychologist Carolyn Mazure of the Yale School of Medicine.

This is complicated by the fact that women suffer more anxiety and depression than men do. That means women with these conditions are often prescribed other drugs that can result in dangerous combinations that increase the risk of overdose (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27079639)

Again, this shows women are more sensitive and thus more aware of their environment – both in their bodies and in the environment, which allows them to detect danger and avoid harm,

As it is now, pain researchers such as Fillingim can only speculate about what might trigger differences in pain perception between women and men. There are numerous possibilities. One, he says, is biological and might have to do with sex hormones.

Another possible contributor could have to do with increased susceptibility to anxiety, depression and sadness — all of which are known to increase sensitivity to pain.

One question researchers are only starting to look into is whether transitioning from one sex to another makes a difference in how people perceive pain.

That’s an excellent question!

Fillingim points to the findings in one study that suggest

  • individuals transitioning from male to female experienced more pain after the transition, whereas
  • for individuals transitioning from female to male, there weren’t many changes in pain after the transition.

I’m not sure what to make of that, except that pain sensitivity can always grow but rarely lessens.

5 thoughts on “Women More Adept Than Men At Discerning Pain

  1. Flutterby

    I know that Dr. Tennant had been doing trials involving oxytocin that greatly helped in reducing pain. Unfortunately, we don’t have tons of it flying through our bodies all the time – otherwise we would be pretty pain free. So while now it just makes us forget about the pain of childbirth, it may be used to help decrease pain from other things later on.

    It is quite striking that people are *just* starting to research the differences between men and women concerning pain. Personally, I’ve always found that men are more wimpy when it comes to dealing with continued pain; women may feel it more, but we seem to endure it better as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      …and then there are also extreme differences between people’s ages and body compositions, like that of a football player vs a person who has to use a wheelchair. No one is truly the “average” person for whom all these drugs are designed to work. I’ll believe that healthcare should be standardized as soon as they find a way to standardize our genetics too.


      1. Flutterby

        I have to agree. We either embrace that everyone is different and treat them accordingly, or we continue to put blocks into the appropriate shaped holes, and anything that doesn’t fit is tossed to the side.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathy C

    NPR used to be fairly credible, but now they are running a lot of drivel. It seems like every once in a while another one of these gender studies come out. These researchers almost always men, leave out factual context about how women are either not believed when they report pain, or the pain is attributed to “hysteria.” These kind of factoid news pieces do very little to reverse the current gender stereotypes, they may be reinforcing them.

    Not much has improved over the last 20 years, with all of this pain research. Women are more adept at discerning a lot of things, but on the individual level, discerning pain might not vary that much between the genders. The media likes to replay this story, about woman and pain, yet it has done little to raise any kind of awareness. Research like this gets attention, it appears to validate woman’s pain, but it actually justifies ignoring pain in woman.

    Here is one “study” that was used for misogynistic and attention getting purposes.
    This one got attention globally, even though it was really flawed. This is an example of the misogyny and attention seeking of these titillating “Studies.” Even the title is porney.

    Liked by 1 person


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