Pain. It’s just a four-letter word, but it holds a lot of weight.
Pain can manifest in our lives in a multitude of ways. For some, it may be an uncomfortable yet rare occurrence. For others, it may last years without reprieve or relief. Whichever way pain presents itself in your body and life, it can be a severe impediment to reaching your goals and feeling your best.
Many factors influence how we experience pain of all types and severities. After all, pain is subjective, and every person endures it differently.
One of these factors happens to be biological sex. There’s no doubt that men and women experience pain differently. However, most research within recent medical history has been conducted on men. This lack of research led to a dangerous knowledge gap in treating both acute and chronic pain in women.
Luckily, however, the medical community has recently shifted to more inclusive methods of research. This is good news for women experiencing pain, as there have been numerous exciting discoveries on how men and women process pain differently.
Read on to learn more about these differences and how they may help you understand and cope with your own experiences with pain.
It’s been discovered that women endure more pain than men and show greater sensitivity to most pain types. On average, women take over-the-counter painkillers, seek more medical attention for pain, and statistically have more chronic illnesses than men.
Does this mean women are weaker than men? Absolutely not. We all know that women are just as strong and capable as men in every way.
However, what it does mean is that as women, our biology is different from men and makes our experience with pain unique.
Central Pain Processing/Nervous System
Firstly, it’s essential to understand the bodily processes that create the physical discomforts that we recognize as pain.
Painful stimuli are processed through the nervous system, a complex system of nerves that send messages to the brain on how to react to different stimuli.
Women have more nerves overall than men, with a recent study finding that “women averaged 34 nerve fibers per square centimeter of facial skin while men only averaged 17 nerve fibers.” Research also shows that women’s nerves are more sensitive than men’s.
Once pain is received by these nerves, the message travels along the central nervous system’s neural pathways. This is where another sex-related difference comes into play. Men and women have different neural pathways within the central nervous system, which causes differences in how these stimuli react in the brain.
Let’s recap. Not only do women have more nerves than men, but we also have more sensitive nerves. And, our central nervous system functions differently than men in a way that scientists believe makes pain, well… more painful.
Many people are not aware of how much everything is interrelated within our bodies, and how many factors play into our pain experience.
For example, did you know that hormones can affect how we process pain? The receptors for sex-related hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, are located in the same parts of the nervous system that process pain messages. These hormones and their fluctuating levels strongly influence how our bodies react to painful stimuli.
Depending on what time of the month it is, we may have different reactions to pain. Recent findings suggest that our muscles, tissues, skin, and nerves react to painful stimuli differently based on hormonal levels and where we are in our menstrual cycle.
So, if you’ve ever wondered why everything seems to hurt more during ovulation, during your period, and just after your period, you now have your answer! It’s because the hormones released during these phases of the cycle make your body more sensitive to pain.
Another hormonal experience unique to women is menopause. In the time leading up to and during menopause, your body creates more estrogen. As your body adjusts to its new hormonal levels, there may be heightened sensitivity to preexisting pains or the manifestation of new types of pain. Many women experience headaches and joint pain at the onset of menopause due to hormonal fluctuations.
In addition to being more sensitive to pain, women experience more painful chronic conditions.
2 out of 10 people in the world experience chronic pain. Of all those who experience chronic pain, 7 out of 10 are women.
Conditions like arthritis (rheumatoid especially), fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, and sex-specific conditions like menstrual pain and endometriosis affect women more than men.
Even though these biological differences between men and women are acknowledged now, it wasn’t always this way. Because of the lack of understanding, there are still residual gender inequalities in health.
Societal masculine and feminine gender roles affect nearly everything about our lives, including our experiences with pain and our health. Men are taught to remain private about their pain and are often told to “man up” or stop being “girly” when they do express themselves.
So, it may not surprise you that when men express their pain, they are statistically more likely to be taken seriously, while women are more likely to be perceived as overreacting.
This bias permeates all aspects of pain treatment. Men are more likely to be prescribed painkillers, while women are more likely to be prescribed sedatives for similar conditions. Men are more likely to be administered tests to discover the root of pain, while women are more likely to be misdiagnosed repeatedly.
Empowering and encouraging open conversations about how each sex experiences pain helps both men and women. A widespread understanding of these differences may help women be taken more seriously when it comes to pain. And, these conversations may also allow men experiencing pain to put down harmful gender stereotypes that prevent them from seeking help when they need it.
All in all…
It’s easy to internalize these findings and feel discouraged by the fact that women are biologically more sensitive and susceptible to pain. But, we challenge you to view this in a positive light. As research continues to develop, and as the medical community grows more aware of the differences in men’s and women’s pain, more specialized and empathetic treatment may become available for all genders.
Understanding our differences can empower us. No matter your gender or your experience, your pain is valid, and you are valid.