Although nobody likes to experience pain, sometimes the experience is inevitable. So, the main concern should be how to deal with the pain and how pain affects us based on our gender.
Many people believe that women are built to handle pain more effectively because of the frequent pain they experience during labor and menstrual periods. But do women have a higher pain tolerance than men?
Pain Routes in Men and Women
The last few years have witnessed a substantial rise in the amount of study done around gender differences in handling pain. Many reports suggest that the level of pain tolerance between men and women differs to some degree. It’s largely believed that women are more sensitive to pain and more susceptible to clinical pain than men.
Also, research has revealed that there are two different routes to pain in men and women. When an injury occurs to the peripheral nerves (nerves connecting the brain and the spinal cord to other parts of the body), they cause augmented pain sensitivity. In men, this sensitivity depends on the immune cells in a man’s spinal cord known as microglia. In women, the pain sensitivity is controlled by the T cells.
These pain routes explain the difference in pain tolerance between men and women. Further studies have revealed that men with less testosterone switch to the pain sensitivity seen in women, while women who lack enough T cells or that are pregnant switch to the pain route seen in men.
This discovery has forced many scientists to change their views on pain sensitivity, with many of them arguing that although pain may look similar from the outside for everyone, it can’t be assumed to cause the same effect on the inside.
Researchers attribute gender differences in pain perception to estrogen, the hormone that controls the growth of female reproductive organs such as the uterus, ovaries, and breasts. This hormone is also responsible for controlling a woman’s menstrual cycle. The hormone can either exacerbate the pain or dull it, depending on the injured site and the area of concentration.
Although testosterone has also been shown to reduce pain to a certain degree, it has not been given enough attention by pain researchers. Some people who suffer from conditions that cause chronic pain are usually treated using testosterone remedies. With respect to microglia and pain hypersensitivity, studies point directly at testosterone as the regulator for pain routes.
A recent study involving castrated mice and female mice revealed that the castrated mice (with low testosterone) responded to pain in a similar way as female mice. And when the researchers injected testosterone into the castrated mice, or female mice, the pain route switched to the one that depends on microglia. This proves that microglia is an important component in managing pain.
Although it’s quite difficult to investigate these pain routes in humans, a few hints have emerged. For instance, Ted Price, a neuropharmacologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, recently discovered differences in the manner in which immune cells contribute to pain in humans. Together with other researchers Price used nerve tissue extracted from cancer patients, whose tumors had invaded their spines.
In the nerves obtained from male patients, Price and his team noticed signs of inflammation suspected to have been caused by macrophage, an immune cell. This cell functions the same way as microglia.
But in the nerves acquired from female patients, they only noticed short stretches of protein building blocks known as peptides that stimulate nerve growth. These outcomes indicated a parallel between human and animal sex differences in pain tolerance.
How Men and Women Handle Pain
It’s mind baffling to even imagine the kind of pain that a woman goes through during labor. It begs the question: Are women built for pain? As explained above, the hormone that regulates the growth of female reproductive organs plays a major role in helping women handle pain better than men.
But as Jenifer Graham, a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, explains, the pain threshold is the least amount of pain that induces a transfer of pain to your brain and nervous system. She also defines pain tolerance as the duration for which you can continuously bear a pain stimulus.
Some people believe that men have higher pain thresholds and levels of tolerance than women because they’re physically stronger. But others think that women have higher pain thresholds and tolerance levels than men, arguing that they are naturally built to withstand regular pain when giving birth. But despite the differing views, studies into pain tolerance have shown variable results.
According to Graham, men have higher pain thresholds than women. She also claims that some studies have shown that men’s level of tolerance to pain is higher than that of women. The main reason for this disparity is the fact that women are more sensitive to pain than men.
Remember that women’s response to pain is affected by the estrogen hormone, which regulates the menstrual cycle. Although there’s still no concrete evidence to show how the menstrual cycle affects a woman’s response to pain, some studies have revealed that women exhibit more pain sensitivity during the premenstrual stage. Others report more pain sensitivity at ovulation.
But a few more studies have shown a very slight variance in pain sensitivity based on the menstrual cycle. Some experts also cite the socialization of gender, arguing that some societies have traditions and beliefs that dictate how men and women respond to pain. For instance, some societies expect boys to be tough and be able to tolerate pain more than women.
In such societies, men report less pain, especially in the presence of female researchers and experimenters than they would in the presence of male researchers. Furthermore, pain itself is naturally complex and subjective. So, researchers typically rely on self-report to understand if a person is experiencing pain.
This makes it quite hard to determine how much pain a person is experiencing and how much pain is sensory and how much is swayed by psychological dynamics. The limbic system of the brain that is related to emotions in both men and women is highly active when reacting to pain for both sexes. That’s why researchers have difficulties distinguishing physical pain from psychological pain, especially when studying a functional MRI.
So, on top of biological influences, sociocultural and psychological factors also play a major role in influencing how both men and women react to pain. Pain similarly stimulates the nerves and brain of both men and women. At the biological level, men and women react to pain in the same way despite the disparity in pain sensitivity brought by the sex hormones.