It's the truth - pain hurts women more than men

Researchers at Bath University are disputing the common belief that women are able to tolerate pain better than men; they claim that in fact the opposite is true.

They say that while women feel more pain in more parts of the body, more often and for a longer duration, compared with men, their tolerance to it is also lower.

Their findings are the culmination of several different studies involving acute, sudden pain such as chest pain and chronic long-term pain, as well as tests on pain thresholds of healthy subjects.

In one study which involved asking volunteers to place an arm in a bath of warm water before plunging it into ice water, the researchers measured the pain threshold, the point at which the participants first noticed pain, and pain tolerance, which is the point at which they could no longer stand the pain.

They found that women were found to have both a lower pain threshold and lower tolerance.

Dr Ed Keogh, a psychologist from the university's pain management unit, says that until recently it was controversial to suggest that there were any differences between males and females in the perception and experience of pain, but that is now no longer the case.

The team suggest that the different strategies that men and women have in coping with pain may also actually make their experience worse.

It appears that men adopt a more problem-solving approach to pain, and think what they can do to deal with the pain and get on with their lives, while women may be more emotional and focus on the pain and how it is making them feel, rather than thinking about how they can deal with it and get back to work.

Dr Keogh says there are important differences between men and women, and thought possibly needs to be given to the treatment implications.

He says though explanations for the differences had focused on biological mechanisms, such as genetic and hormonal differences, it was becoming clear that social and psychological factors were also important.

The president of the British Pain Society, Dr Beverly Collett, says the research confirms a growing belief in the medical community that there were gender differences in the way pain is experienced.

She says previous research has shown that there is a higher percentage of women with pain-related complaints in doctors surgeries, and that women appear to feel pain at a lower threshold.

She says while this may be down to learned behaviour when they were children,no one really knows why.

Professor Gavin Kenny, head of Glasgow University's department of anaesthesia at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, was surprised at the study's results.

He says in a study on a similar area of pain research, approximately 20 years ago, which focused on patients who were having abdominal surgery, which is extremely painful, they discovered that male patients used 25 per cent more morphine.

He says this new study's results could be interesting as they raise issues about the psychological aspects that overlay it, and the psychological stresses the sexes experience.

Mr Kenny also said however, that in studies involving subjects plunging their arms into iced water, men might be more prone to take a "macho approach" and would submerge their arm far longer than women, purely because they felt that they had something to prove.

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