The notion that women tolerate pain better than men just doesn’t withstand the test of science:
Scientists investigating gender differences in pain have found that not only do women report more pain throughout the course of their lifetime, they also experience it in more bodily areas, more often and for longer duration when compared to men.
There also seem to be differences in how men and women think and feel about their pain. For example, anxiety may affect men and women in different ways, and the strategies used to cope with pain may actually make their experience worse.
These conclusions are based on several studies into the pain response of volunteers exposed to a pain stimulus, such as a cold water bath, as well as field studies in clinics and hospitals.
“Until fairly recently it was controversial to suggest that there were any differences between males and females in the perception and experience of pain, but that is no longer the case,” said Dr Ed Keogh a psychologist from the Pain Management Unit at the University of Bath.
“Research is telling us that women experience a greater number of pain episodes across their lifespan than men, in more bodily areas and with greater frequency…”
“Women who concentrate on the emotional aspects of their pain may actually experience more pain as a result, possibly because the emotions associated with pain are negative.”
To carry out this research, scientists asked volunteers to place their non-dominant arm in a warm water bath (37 degrees centigrade) for two minutes before transferring the hand into an ice water bath maintained at a temperature of 1 – 2 degrees centigrade.
The cold pressor tank allows researchers to monitor the pain threshold (the point at which volunteers first notice the pain) and pain tolerance (the point at which volunteers can no longer stand the pain). An upper time limit of two minutes is used in these kinds of studies.
Other research by the Pain Management Unit has looked at the relationship between gender differences in anxiety sensitivity and pain. Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency to be fearful of anxiety-related sensations (e.g., rapidly beating heat), and seems to be important in the experience of pain sensations. In a study of 150 patients referred to a hospital clinic with chest pain, researchers discovered that the factors that predicted pain in men and women were different.
Researchers believe that it is the fear of anxiety-related sensations and an increased tendency to negatively interpret such sensations, both of which are more predominant in women than men that influences women’s experiences of pain.