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Recently, I joined my wife for the delivery of our first child. At the end of the delivery, I told the midwife "that looked pretty painful". And she replied to me "it's painful for a woman, so you can imagine how painful a man would find it!" She and the obstetrician (who was a woman) added "pain sensitivity really differs between men and women".

It is not the first time I hear the last claim.

I am wondering: is there any scientific evidence suggesting that pain perception varies between women and men?

  • 2
    Anecdotally, in my days in EMS I found that the absolute biggest babies about pain, and especially needles, was big manly guys. The frail little old ladies could take a big honking 14-gauge needle without batting an eye, but big 250 lb. football players whined and cried over little 22-gauge needles like little prissy little girls. – Carey Gregory Aug 5 '16 at 22:36
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As an addendum (with some contrasts) to the previous answer (To be honest, I had the same feeling that women have definitely a different pain threshold compared to men.)

According to WebMD (http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/chronic-pain-conditions),

It is now widely believed that pain affects men and women differently. While the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone certainly play a role in this phenomenon, psychology and culture, too, may account at least in part for differences in how men and women receive pain signals.

But interestingly, studies showed that men have a higher pain threshold than women:

male experimental animals injected with estrogen, a female sex hormone, appear to have a lower tolerance for pain-that is, the addition of estrogen appears to lower the pain threshold. Similarly, the presence of testosterone, a male hormone, appears to elevate tolerance for pain in female mice.

It seems that the pain killing system in women and men work differently, as suggested by some studies showing that some painkiller (such as kappa-opioids, which are used in labour) work better in women than in men 1.

The exact reasons for this difference in pain perception is, however still unknown.

Here extracts from the abstract of a study, which browsed the literature concerning pain perception in men and women:

In addition, sex hormones influence pain sensitivity; pain threshold and pain tolerance in women vary with the stage of the menstrual cycle. Imaging studies of the brain have shown differences between men and women in the spatial pattern and intensity of response to acute pain. Among rodents, females are more sensitive than males to noxious stimuli and have lower levels of stress-induced analgesia. (...) Research on transgenic mice suggests that normal males have a higher level of activity in the endogenous analgesic system compared with normal females.

Wiesenfeld-Hallin Z. Sex differences in pain perception. Gend Med. 2005 Sep;2(3):137-45. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16290886

So probably, differences in pain perception between women and men is multifactorial: psychological, cultural and biological.

  • Interesting answer. The article by Wiesenfeld really offers a good review on the topic! Thank you for this input. Though, you may wish to consider adding a reference regarding the difference in kappa opioids produced analgesia in women and men? For example, following article published in Nature is considered as a "historical" study on this subject: Gear RW et al. Kappa-opioids produce significantly greater analgesia in women than in men. Nat Med. 1996 Nov;2(11):1248-50 (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8898754). Best wishes. – S.Victor Aug 9 '16 at 20:18
  • Ok, I have added this reference. Thanks for improving my answer. – Benjamin A. Aug 12 '16 at 20:05
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While not the best evidence, with a reasonably small control group and arguably a sub-optimal method for administering pain, the Mythbusters did conduct "scientific" investigation into who can tolerate the most pain:

Women have a higher pain tolerance than men.

confirmed

[For the following myths involving pain tolerance, all of the test subjects sat in a chair and submersed one hand in an ice bath at 1°C for as long as they could endure.] Twenty-five members of each gender took part. The women lasted an average of 100.4 seconds in the ice, while the average for the men was 84.3 seconds.

http://mythresults.com/no-pain-no-gain

So while not a quantifiable difference, evidence suggested that the answer to your question is YES.

  • I'm not criticizing your answer, but is Mythbusters really the best evidence out there? Has no one ever published on this question in a peer reviewed journal? Maybe they haven't, but I would find that a little surprising. – Carey Gregory Aug 5 '16 at 22:33
  • I'm sure there is better evidence, I just had this info "to hand" – Gunge Aug 5 '16 at 22:46
  • I too saw that Mythbusters episode and have an issue with their methods. If you tossed the data from those who were exceptionally immune to pain, which is an individual phenomena, I believe the data would be statistically insignificant. There was one woman who was the exception. – BillDOe Aug 12 '16 at 20:27

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