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When It Comes to Pain, Who’s the Weaker Sex?

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My father had his hips replaced a few years ago and his most profound takeaway from the whole experience was a newfound belief that when it comes to pain, men are total wimps. When we visited him at the hospital, he told us about lying awake at night, listening to the men on the orthopedic ward moan and cry for the nurses to give them more medication. Dad said there were many women on the floor, but the ladies were silent, tolerating their pain and slogging through their physical therapy without complaint.  Whenever he tells the story to a woman, she invariably reacts with a roll of the eyes and an exasperated “Well, duh!"  As it turns out, several respected pain studies have shown that in fact, men are the ones who handle pain better.

Are Women the Wimps?
According to multiple studies in the U.S. and Great Britain, it takes more painful stimuli for men to report feeling pain, and when they do feel it, they tolerate the pain longer. Women are more sensitive to pain and they’re more likely to complain of chronic pain conditions such as migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis. The only women who have a measurably different response to pain are natural redheads, who have a naturally higher pain threshold.

Not only do men and women perceive pain differently, we also deal with it in different ways. Researchers found that women tend to ruminate on the negative emotional aspects of their pain, while men only think about the physical sensations. While men are more likely to deny their pain, abuse drugs and alcohol to reduce tension, women’s coping strategies are very different, and perhaps more effective. Women are more likely to get medical help, seek social support, distract themselves with other pleasurable activities, and practice relaxation.

The Estrogen Connection
Some scientists beg to differ with these generalized conclusions because there is a huge variance of pain tolerance among all people, not just between men and women. Many factors can influence how acutely we feel pain and scientists are beginning to explore the differences for the pain threshold discrepancies. Between men and women, the thing that seems to have the most profound impact on pain is the menstrual cycle. As anyone who’s ever gotten a bikini wax right before their period will tell you, a woman’s sensitivity to pain can fluctuate throughout the month. Right before menstruation, estrogen levels are low, causing the brain to process pain differently than when levels are high, as they are during other points in the cycle. Estrogen levels also rise significantly during pregnancy; studies show that as women approach labor and delivery, they become increasingly less sensitive to pain.   

Real Men Don’t Have Pain
Many other factors influence how we respond to pain, including psychological conditions, intelligence, and emotional balance. Focusing on the physiological differences ignores the different ways that men and women are socialized to react to pain. Boys are often encouraged to deny it and its accompanying emotions, since weakness or displays of emotion are unmasculine. Researchers have found that it’s only after starting school that boys begin to report less pain and their expression of emotions becomes noticeably less than girls’. Adult male pain research subjects have reported that they feel obligated to downplay or deny their pain to preserve their masculinity. And in studies, whether a man is interviewed by a male or female researcher affects his reporting of pain. Men report less pain in front of women than they do in front of other men.

Considering the sociological differences between men and women, scientists now theorize that it’s incorrect to label all women “wimps” about pain; maybe it’s just that women are more perceptive about their pain and they report it more honestly. Women are known to describe their pain in greater detail and precision, and to better express how the pain makes them feel. It’s widely acknowledged that women are far more likely to seek medical attention for pain, but their complaints often don’t raise concern in their doctors and they’re less likely to be taken seriously or be treated effectively. In what some clinicians have dubbed “The Yentl Syndrome,” women generally have to display more prolonged or serious symptoms of pain in order to receive the same level of treatment as men.

Although the science might come down slightly on their side, it’s hard to take studies seriously that claim women can’t handle pain. My boyfriend takes the day off from work every time he has a bellyache, but I suffered through kidney stones, the worst pain I’ve ever experienced, and only agreed to go to the hospital because I couldn’t sleep. My best friend described childbirth as “not really that bad.” I knew ballerinas who would dance until their feet were bloody and battered. No matter what these scientists say, I know far too many men who cry over a stubbed toe and way too many women who put up with chronic and excruciating pain to believe that women really are the weaker sex.

 

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