Do Women Have a Higher Pain Tolerance Than Men?

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When talking about experiences like getting tattoos, sports injuries, or childbirth, a common question arises: Do men and women feel pain differently?

It turns out that at a cellular level, there are differences in how males and females process pain.

However, determining which sex has a higher pain tolerance is more complex.

How Pain Works

To feel pain, sensory neurons called nociceptors detect painful stimuli and send signals to the brain.

These stimuli include extreme temperatures, pressure, and inflammation.

People’s responses to these stimuli vary, influenced by factors such as sex.

What Studies Show

Several studies suggest women are more sensitive to pain and have a lower pain threshold than men.

For example:

  • A 2012 study found women more sensitive to mechanical pain.
  • Another study showed women have lower thresholds for heat-induced pain.

Jeffrey Mogil, a behavioral neuroscience professor at McGill University, noted that most studies indicate women are more pain-sensitive.

Yet, some studies show the opposite.

Conflicting Evidence

A 2023 study involving 22 adolescents (12 females and 10 males) found males rated their pain from hot and cold stimuli higher than females did.

Other studies suggest no significant difference in pain response to heat between sexes.

Measuring Pain Tolerance

Frank Porreca, a neuroscience professor at the University of Arizona, highlighted the challenge of measuring pain tolerance due to varying pain thresholds and test environments.

He noted that females often provide more consistent pain ratings than males.

Porreca’s research discovered that nociceptors (pain-detecting neurons) in males and females are activated by different substances.

This indicates that the initial pain perception step differs between sexes.

Cellular Differences

Mogil explained that it hadn’t been shown before that nociceptor features are sex-dependent.

Usually, low-intensity stimuli, like cold water, don’t activate nociceptors unless there is an injury.

Porreca’s team investigated whether this sensitivity is sex-dependent.

The Experiment

Researchers sampled nociceptor cells from the spinal cord of male and female mice, nonhuman primates, and humans.

They exposed the cells to substances like prolactin (associated with females’ pain response) and orexin (associated with males’ pain response).

The cells reacted differently:

  • Prolactin lowered the activation threshold in females but not males.
  • Orexin sensitized male cells but didn’t affect female cells.

Implications for Pain Therapy

This discovery suggests that pain treatments could be optimized for men and women since “most of the world’s pain patients are women.”

For example, fibromyalgia is more common in women in the U.S.

Conclusion

While it’s not clear which sex is more sensitive to pain, evidence shows that pain processing mechanisms differ between males and females.

Understanding these differences could lead to better, sex-specific pain treatments in the future.


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