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Do women feel pain more acutely than men?

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Millions of women who have soldiered through natural childbirth while their male partners wilted beside the bed may be shocked by a new study published in the Journal of Pain. According to the authors, who pored over the records of over 72,000 medical patients, "Women report more intense pain than men in virtually every disease category."

The study's senior author, Atul Butte, MD, PhD, points out that there have been other reports on men versus women and pain, but their investigation is the first to indicate that women feel pain more intensely than men. Butte's team looked at self-reported pain scores from 1 to 10 in over 160,000 cases across 250 diseases. "We saw higher pain scores for females practically across the board," said Butte.

Studies of female ultra-endurance runners and long-distance swimmers have bolstered the idea that, contrary to old biases, women are tougher than men. A 2010 report commissioned by the insurance company Engage Mutual also found that men tend to exaggerate symptoms of sickness more than women, describing a common cold as "flu," for example, or a headache as a "migraine."

While the new study does appear to refute the idea that women are hardier when it comes to pain, the authors acknowledge some caveats. First, they assumed that patients had not taken medication before reporting their pain scores. Second, it did not look at the patient's context, such as would a young man report less pain if his mother or a female nurse was in the room. And perhaps most importantly, as Butte puts it, "It's still not clear that women feel more pain than men do…but they are certainly reporting more pain."

Ultimately, then, it looks like the jury is still out. Before we revert to calling women "the weaker sex," it appears more research needs to be done. Butte and his team plan to follow up by trying to find a biomarker, such as a blood test variable, which correlates to the actual experience of pain.

By Sarah B. Weir




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