Study Finds Women Perceive Pain Differently Than Men

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Recent scientific studies seem to validate many women’s lived experiences of having their pain taken less seriously than men’s in a medical setting. But a new study that finds men and women actually report their perceptions of pain differently could shed light on the reasons we use men’s reports of pain as a baseline and consider women’s estimations of their own pain exaggerated.

In a recent study out of the University of Florida’s Pain Research and Intervention Center of Excellence, men and women were given the exact same intensity of stimuli and asked to report their pain levels on a scale of one to ten, with one being perfectly comfortable and ten being the worst pain imaginable. The study found men often reported lower levels of pain than women.

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An NPR article about the study speculates that maybe women are just more used to bitching about their pain than men:

“Now it could be that men are less willing to admit they have pain. It could also be that women have learned to cope with pain and are more accustomed to talking about it. After all, don’t women experience more pain in their lives? What about the monthly pain of menstruation? Or the extreme pain of childbirth?”

But the reporting on this study fails to address the evidence that women have to work much harder to have their pain acknowledged by healthcare professionals than men and how that might shape the ways in which they assess that pain. According to a New York Times piece citing research from the University of Pennsylvania, women wait longer to receive pain medication than men and are also more likely to be told their physical pain is actually “stress,” which might play more of a factor in how they assign a number to their pain in the presence of medical professionals than being “more accustomed to talking about it.”

There is also some evidence that differences in hormones could actually make people experience pain differently, according to statements from pain researcher and psychologist Roger Fillingim in the NPR piece:

“‘Women have both higher levels and fluctuations in circulating estrogens and progesterone, and those may contribute to experiencing higher levels of pain,” Fillingim says, “whereas men have higher levels of testosterone,’” which in some studies has been shown to be protective against pain or associated with lower pain sensitivity.”

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And while the article frames the study as providing insight into women and opioid addiction, it also speaks to the ways in which the entire field needs to re-evaluate the ways we think about women’s health in a world where women are more likely to be told their pain is “psychosomatic” to the point where they’re not even reporting their own heart attacks out of fear of being labeled hypochondriacs, according to research from Yale.

Fillingim believes the ultimate solution to these discrepancies in the way we treat pain in men and women may be created different medications for the sexes:

“We may ultimately need pink and blue pills, but in order to get there we need to understand what the mechanisms are that are female-specific or male-specific so that we can design more personalized therapies that are going to help reduce pain for women and men in the long run.”

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But even his use of the terms “pink and blue pills” invites some questions about how equitable those pills would even be.

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