Understanding how men and women feel feel pain is clouded by conflicting results and murky interpretations. While some work suggests that women feel more pain than men, other studies have found the opposite to be true. So which gender has the higher threshold? That depends on what's hurting and how.
Dr. Andreas Sander-Kiesling, in the department of anesthesiology and intensive care at the Medical University of Graz in Austria, reviewed records of more than 10,000 patients undergoing various surgeries over a two year period who were asked to rate their pain within 24 hours of their procedure. The men were 27% more likely to report feeling more pain after major operations such as heart and shoulder surgery, while women were more likely to show higher pain readings after relatively minor or routine ones such as biopsies and even abortions. Interestingly, women reported less pain after invasive procedures. Because the average age of the women was 58—post-menopause when estrogen, which can increase pain sensitivity, drops—that might in part explain the finding.
Another factor could be psychological. Biopsies, for instance, are done to determine if suspicious growths are cancerous, or life-threatening, says Sandner-Kiesling, so the anxiety of worrying about cancer may be playing a role in how women perceive the relatively minor procedure. The same may apply to abortion, which can be fraught with emotional and psychological implications.
“We were hoping we could answer more about gender and pain,” says Sandner-Kiesling, “and in certain ways we did, and certain ways we did not. We found a [gender] difference but the difference may depend on the procedure. So the whole picture is still completely fuzzy and confusing.” Which means for the time being, at least, there won’t be male or female versions of pain-killing treatments, but if research continues to tease apart how and why men and women perceive pain in different ways, that may not be so far off.