The idea that women are hardcore rocks who can withstand any amount of physical pain with serenity and fortitude has been around for a long time. After all, we have to survive monthly go-rounds with monster menstrual cramps and then many of us have to push a giant baby skull through our most delicate parts. We do need to tolerate a lot of pain, but it turns out that doesn't mean we don't feel it. In fact, according to a new study, it turns out that women actually feel pain more intensely than men do.
Researchers from Stanford University started out by looking at 72,000 electronic patient records that contained pain scores based on 250 different diagnoses. The field was then narrowed to include only 47 of the most common diseases, which covered 11,000 patients. The pain scores were based on patients rating their pain on a scale of zero to ten. Zero indicates no pain at all, and 10 signals the "worst pain imaginable."
What researchers found when they analyzed the pain scores is that, on average, women scored their pain 20 percent higher than men with the same condition rated theirs. What's so striking about these results is that they examine men and women who have the same conditions—which ranged, by the way, from back pain to digestive disorders to sinus infections. It would seem that there'd be a similar level of pain in any patient with one kind of condition, but nope! Across the board, women experienced more intense pain than men.
So why did women report having so much more pain? The answer, unfortunately, is that researchers don't yet know. Hormones are one possible explanation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle:
Doctors have long known that women are more susceptible to many pain-centric diseases, such as fibromyalgia and arthritis, and many women say they experience pain more intensely when they are menstruating, suggesting there's a hormonal connection.
But it could also be psychological or social norms that affect how men and women report their pain. For instance, societal pressures might mean men are more reluctant to admit to being in pain, especially to a female nurse—and who knows, the practitioner's gender might also influence women's willingness to report their pain. One possible psychological factor is that women are more likely to have depression or anxiety, which both can increase sensations of pain.
Further study is going to be necessary to figure out why exactly there is this difference between the sexes, but for now even knowing there is a difference is incredibly useful to doctors because it gives them a more sophisticated understanding of how people report their pain.
A difference of one point on a pain scale—which is the average difference between women and men for many of the conditions studied—can indicate to a doctor whether pain control medication is working or not. Dr. Atul Butte, senior author on the study, says this has real practical implications:
We actually use these numbers. We use these as a kind of threshold – when do we start pain medicine? Are we treating someone with enough pain medicine? We need to have that understanding that there is a sex difference here.
So, even if the bad news is that women experience more pain, the good news here is that at least we're heading toward a better understanding of how to properly address and/or medicate that pain. And anything that leads to doctor's believing us when we say we're in agony and to the distribution of bliss-inducing pain killers can't be all bad.
Women found to report much more pain than men [SF Chronicle]
Image via Angela Waye/Shutterstock.