Pain is a highly individualized experience that affects everyone differently. However, one factor in your biology plays a significant role in the experience of pain – sex and gender. Many of us think we have it worse than the opposite sex, but is it true? In this article, we’ll explore the differences in how males and females experience pain and what you need to know when it comes to your pain conditions.
Who Experiences More Chronic Pain?
Research shows that women, on average, experience chronic pain more frequently, more intensely, and for more extended periods than men. In addition, many chronic pain conditions – from fibromyalgia to rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and IBS – are predominantly diagnosed in women.
Studies also show that women are more likely to experience simultaneous diagnoses and experience pain more intensely during injuries or other single-event health crises. This affects women’s healthcare experience and can negatively affect mood and psychological health. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety, with chronic pain being one of the myriad reasons for this unfortunate statistic.
Biology Plays a Part in Pain Response
The differences in pain levels between men and women aren’t merely psychological. The neural pathways that signal pain are structured differently in men and women, leading women to become more attuned to physical pain. Women also have more nerve fibers per square centimeter of skin, heightening sensory perception and greater pain sensitivity.
Hormone differences also play a significant role in pain perception. Studies show that testosterone can aid in lessening the pain response, while estrogen generally heightens pain sensitivity. Coupled with the pain associated with the menstrual cycle, it is no wonder that women experience more pain throughout a lifetime and are more hyperfocused on pain when it occurs.
Psychological Differences of Experiencing Pain
Heightened pain sensitivity plays an essential role in reporting chronic pain in men and women. Still, psychological and social factors may also indicate differences in how men and women experience pain. Women are thought to be more attuned to their bodies because, from a young age, they must be aware of their menstrual cycle. In addition, the added responsibility of pregnancy makes women more likely to notice changes in their bodies, including pain.
Women also describe their pain in more emotional detail, indicating that women are impacted by pain from a social and psychological stance. According to an NIH study, Women used “more graphic language than men, and typically focused on the sensory aspects of their pain event. Men used fewer words, less descriptive language, and focused on events and emotions.”
Some believe the differences in chronic pain diagnosis stem from social differences, where men are conditioned to “act tough” and not show pain, while women are more likely to speak up. However, other reports indicate that women also feel pressured to ignore their chronic pain to be present for their families. They feel guilty for not juggling work responsibilities, child care, marriage, and caring for aging parents.
What This Means For Both Men and Women
While men and women experience different pain levels, all of our patients must receive the care they need to treat chronic pain. We encourage male patients to speak up when they notice chronic pain because nobody should have to toughen up for it. And we want to help our female patients regain their lives and make their pain more manageable.
If you or a loved one is experiencing chronic pain, visit one of our pain management clinics to learn about your options.