When it comes to pain, most assume that women hold the ultimate trump card: childbirth. While men might be stereotyped as the sex to grin and bear pain, women legitimately create and deliver an entirely new human from their own body. It begs the question: is pain tolerance different among sexes, or do men and women experience pain differently?
What Causes Pain?
It might sound like a simple question, but what causes pain is actually incredibly complex. Pain happens when neural sensors in the skin, muscles, joints, or organs register a potentially harmful sensation, such as tissue or heat damage.
Sensors then send signals through the spinal cord and up to the brainstem, where they reach the cerebral cortex. It’s here that the brain interprets those signals as pain.
Multiple diverse chemical pathways contribute to the brain registering pain. For instance, there’s the acute response to something hot or sharp. Or, there’s long-term, chronic pain that can persist even after an initial injury has healed.
Sexes Experiencing Pain Differently
A number of factors contribute to the perception of pain levels. From hormones and genetics to psychological factors, all of which vary wildly between men and women. It’s also possible that the pain systems that register pain actually work differently in men and women.
Research indicates that male and female bodies don’t process pain the same way. A study conducted at UCLA discovered that if a man and woman each place their hand on a hot stove, different parts of their brain will activate. In males, the cognitive, or analytic region of the brain springs into action. In females, the limbic system, the brain’s emotional headquarter, lights up.
Even more, scientists believe that female bodies naturally respond to painful stimuli more intensely than males’. In one study, women’s pupils dilated faster than men’s when uncomfortable pressure was applied to their fingers. Pupil dilation is a physiological response controlled by the nervous system, demonstrating that the female’s keener pain response is beyond conscious control.
Who’s Experiencing More Pain?
To be clear, sorting out the gender disparities of pain responses does not imply women are the weaker sex. In fact, it appears that in general, women simply experience more pain than men.
In a study of more than 11,000 patients, researchers assessed sex differences in reported pain for more than 250 diseases and conditions. For almost every diagnosis, women reported higher average pain scores than men. On average, women’s scores were 20 percent higher than men’s.
Researchers are unsure if this stark difference is due to how female bodies naturally respond to pain, or if chemically, women are experiencing pain on a different scale. What is for certain is that between the sexes, men and women do experience pain differently.
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