Of late, gender-related influence on pain tolerance has become a hotly debated topic within the public domain and the scientific fraternity. It is a common belief that women can better tolerate pain than men. After all, one can only imagine the excruciating pain women have to endure during childbirth. This notion is further reinforced by videos of men displaying extreme agony when subjected to simulated labour pain which have been making rounds on the internet.
Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Our central nervous system (CNS) controls pain by releasing natural opioids (pain killers) such as endorphins and encephalins. The perception of pain is a process shaped by the neurochemical processes in the CNS in response to different pain stimuli which can be influenced by various psychosocial factors such as:
- past experience
- distraction etc
In other words, different people will respond differently to various types of pain (musculoskeletal pain, neuropathic pain, inflammatory pain, heat pain, cold pain, injury pain, experimentally-induced pain etc.) under different circumstances. For example, you probably would not realize you have sustained a cut or abrasion when you are actually playing football until after the game but you would probably groan in pain immediately if you cut yourself in the kitchen.
Findings from research are mixed, with some indicating that men are typically better at handling pain in experimental settings than women, whereas others pointed to variations depending on multiple biological and psychosocial processes. As such, evidence remains inconclusive. In view of this, to conclude that women are generally better at handling pain is a gross simplification of a complex and multifactorial process. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that testosterone (a male sex hormone) instead of estrogen (a female sex hormone) has been shown to actually increase pain tolerance in both human and animal studies.
Moving beyond such a gender-influenced pain debate, the greater concern is the high prevalence of chronic pain and its impact on individuals’ well-being as well as the economic burden it incurs. With an estimate of approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide suffering from chronic pain, it is important for the management of pain to be optimized.
Always consult your doctors or pharmacists before starting any pain medications particularly for chronic pain where medical assessments are generally required (Read about the dangers of taking pain medications regularly without proper advice from healthcare professionals here). Non-drug therapies such as hot/cold packs, massage, physical therapy, pet therapy, relaxation techniques can also be employed to augment the effects of pain medications in a holistic patient-centred approach.
- The American Academy of Pain Medicine: http://www.painmed.org/patientcenter/facts-on-pain/#refer
- Fillingim, al. (2009) Sex, Gender, and Pain: A Review of Recent Clinical and Experimental Findings. J Pain 10(5): 447–485.
- Gharaghozlu al.(2014) Effects of Testosterone on Pain Threshold. International Conference on Chemical, Agricultural and Medical Sciences
- Bobey, MJ & Davidson, PO (1970). “Psychological factors affecting pain tolerance. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 14(4): 371–376.
- Stening al. (2012) Influence of estrogen levels on thermal perception, pain thresholds, and pain tolerance: studies on women undergoing in vitro fertilization. J Pain 13(5): 459-466.
- Choi al. (2014) Effects of Seasonal Differences in Testosterone and Cortisol Levels on Pain Responses Under Resting and Anxiety Conditions. Yonsei Med J 55(1): 216–223.
- Bartley, E & Fillingim, RB (2013) Sex differences in pain: a brief review of clinical and experimental findings. British Journal of Anaesthesia 111(1): 52-58.
- Wiesenfeld-Hallin, H. (2005). Sex differences in pain perception. Gend Med 2(3): 137-145.