Do Men and Women Experience Pain Differently?

women experience pain

This is not a question of politics or worldviews. Neither is it a matter of superiority versus inferiority. Rather, asking a question about the differences in pain experiences for women and men is an issue of biology and chemistry. And like much of the sciences, this gets complicated. Adding further to the complexity is the interesting fact that every individual, regardless of sex, experiences pain differently. That’s why it can be so very difficult to diagnose chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia.

Why is this question even important? Because it plays a significant role in a bias against the way women are treated for pain. That applies to everything from chest pain and chronic pain that men also experience, to the even worse treatment women receive for female-specific problems and conditions. You see, the short answer is yes, women and men experience pain differently. In fact, women are actually more sensitive to pain. But you would never know that based on assumptions, stereotypes, and the way the medical field addresses women’s pain.

How do Women Experience Pain?

Frankly, this whole topic is a just a tiny bite off incredibly large fields of study. We will only address some highlights here.

Marked for Inflammation

There are countless studies that examine sex-based differences in pain. These examine everything from hormones, pain thresholds and tolerances, to opiate receptors and much, much more. We will just look at one of those for now. A landmark study was published in 2001 called “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain.” In asking this very question of whether men and women experience pain differently, the authors addressed a 1998 study that hypothesized a link between reproductive hormones, inflammation, and pain: “….the hormones may “act directly in the muscles to modulate the release of nitric oxide,” which causes vasodilation (blood vessel dilation), inflammation, and pain. In addition, estrogen may interact with various mediators of inflammation (i.e., swelling) and increase pain sensation.”

Well, it turns out that their hypothesis is pretty accurate due to the presence of something called high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP). Hs-CRP is a biomarker for inflammation in the body. That suggests that the more Hs-CRP someone has, the more inflammation and pain they are likely to experience. And guess what? Women have more of this protein than men. Furthermore, a University of California (Davis) study found a positive correlation between the severity of PMS symptoms and the presence of Hs-CRP.

Brain and Central Nervous System

“The Girl Who Cried Pain” authors cited another study that used brain scans with PET imaging on male and female subjects who were exposed to painful stimuli. They found that “females had significantly greater activation of the contralateral prefrontal cortex, the contralateral insual, and the thalamus when compared to the males.” In plain terms, that means that the females were far more affected and sensitive to pain than the males. They add, “The authors surmised that the differences between men and women in their response to pain were (1) a direct result of physiological differences between men’s and women’s brains; (2) mediated by emotional or cognitive responses that are different between men and women and are responsible for brain activation differences between men and women; or (3) a result of both (1) and (2).”

After reading this, some of you may be inclined to attribute a woman’s heightened sensitivity to pain to her alleged “weakness” compared to males. But that misconception actually leads to the added influence of a culture that associates expressions of pain with weakness.

Culture and Pain

Have you ever watched old movies that depict women fainting at the sight of…. just about anything? Well, there are at least two reasons for that. One is the use of the corset during the 19th century. An accessory designed to make women look extra small by tightly squeezing her torso, the corset often prevented women from adequately breathing. Another reason is what is referred to in psychological terms as mass sociogenic illness. This is a kind of group-mentality sickness of sorts, but there is no actual source or reason. The National Library of Medicine explains that “It occurs in the context of a credible threat that provokes great anxiety…” Much of this took place during the Victorian era in which women were expected to act dainty and frail. And fainting due to corsets and/or anxiety regarding anything that rocked their fragility was just a norm. In other words, all the cool ladies were doing it.

I’m not entirely blaming the Victorian era for the still pervasive modern misconception that women are weaklings. There are much more controversial issues attached to that notion as well. Nevertheless, women in our Western culture are associated with weakness. And since women are more inclined than men to express pain for many of the same and related cultural reasons, a woman’s pain is frequently dismissed as just part of her weakness, rather than a part of her biological makeup.

The irony here is that since women do experience pain more intensely than men, they ought to be treated more aggressively than men. Instead, their pain is downplayed, they often misdiagnosed due to misogynistic assumptions, and even simply dismissed as someone who lacks the fortitude to handle the daily stresses of life. Give me a break!

Has anything like this happened to you? Were you convinced of a chronic disorder like fibromyalgia, but struggled for years to be taken seriously by your physician? Please tell us your story.

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