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Pain: Is it a Gender Issue?

Though it’s no secret that many women bravely endure a great deal of pain throughout their lives - particularly during pregnancy and childbirth - new studies are showing that women may actually be more sensitive to pain than men. Most studies surrounding the issue have focused on immediate pain, however, recent findings show that the same truisms could apply to chronic pain as well.

Unfortunately there isn’t one singular reason why women would experience pain with greater intensity than their male counterparts. However, there are several contributing factors to this overall phenomenon.

It’s widely known that men and women have different levels of hormones in their bodies, which work to control reproductive systems, control body function and shape, and can contribute to gender normative behaviors. It’s now thought that hormone levels may also contribute to how the body experiences pain.

Estrogen, a hormone present in both men and women but experienced at much higher levels in women, is directly linked to the level of pain experienced by a woman. This issue in particular is of interest since female estrogen levels change throughout a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. Further, estrogen levels deteriorate as a woman moves out of reproductive age and into menopause.

Although scientists believe that estrogen may play a role in the experience of pain, just what role it plays is not known. Current research shows conflicting information. While some women experience more pain when their levels of estrogen are increased, others experience less.

A Mind Matter
The differing ways in which women and men approach pain mentally may also have an impact on pain experience. Although men tend to leap right to a focus on the pain and its immediate sensation, studies show that the instinct for a woman is to experience the pain in terms of perceived long-term consequences. So, if a man is to experience a shooting pain in his leg, he’ll think about the pain in terms of how it is affecting him in the immediate moment. A woman on the other hand may experience the same exact pain but think about how it could affect her lifestyle at large should it persist. This focus on the long-term, which is often wrapped up in a doomsday interpretation of the pain, can lead to the immediate perception that the pain is more intense than it is.

Long Term
When it comes to chronic pain, men and women also have different approaches. Though many of these differences are backed by normative socio-emotional experiences, they are nevertheless worthy in an examination of the different approaches to pain of men and women. Women, for example, are more likely as a group to discuss pain with a family member or friend. In other words, women are more likely to seek support for chronic pain - which many would see as a good coping mechanism. However, some studies show that such practices can lead to an overwrought focus on the pain which in turn magnifies it, making the problem bigger than it needed to be in the first place.

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