Why Men And Women Experience Pain Differently

Over the past couple of decades, and especially in recent years, researchers have been investigating how men and women experience pain, the differences in their sensitivity to pain, and what the causes are for the differences in their pain experiences.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the findings continually point to evidence that women are at a higher risk of clinical pain compared to men, with studies revealing that women report chronic pain such as fibromyalgia, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions more frequently than men. Some experiments have also suggested that women experience greater sensitivity to pain.

"The burden of pain is substantially greater for women than men," researcher and psychologist Roger Fillingim tells NPR, adding "and that led pain researchers like myself to wonder if the pain perception system is different in women than in men."

While the underlying causes for why men and women experience pain differently are not fully clear, NIH explains that researchers tend to support the premise that a combination of biological and psychosocial factors are at play.

Hormones and other factors

According to Haider J. Warraich, M.D., a physician at VA Boston Healthcare System, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, one of the reasons that pain is believed to be experienced differently between women and men comes down to hormones. For instance, results of recent initial research found that "testosterone reduces sensitivity to distress, and individuals undergoing male-to-female transition who receive estrogen and testosterone blockers experience an increased frequency of migraines," Dr. Warraich explains to The Washington Post.

Another factor that appears to have an effect on how men and women experience pain differently are immune cells. Dr. Warraich points to the differences in the male and female immune system, stating "More recent work, however, appears to suggest that differences in the immune system mediate differences in how noxious signals travel across the bodies of males and females." This position aligns with recent research conducted on the nervous system of male mice that points to the nervous system's immune cells, also called microglia, as having an impact on how men and women experience pain. (via Nature). 

Medical experts believe that as research continues in this area, the findings could support vital advances in pain therapy. Right now, pharmaceuticals are generally tailored to everyone, but as science gets a better understanding of how and why pain is experienced across the sexes — while also taking genetics, gender identification, age, and other factors into consideration — it's possible that "future pain medications will be tailored to individuals," Iain Chessel, vice president and head of neuroscience at AstraZeneca in Cambridge, U.K., tells Nature.