The idea that men suffer more when in pain than women could well be a myth, according to a new report written by Stanford University researchers in the Journal of Pain. The authors say that their large study found that even though women are able to endure childbirth, an ordeal that males never have to go through, their findings showed that overall, males appear to endure pain better than women.

The researchers stress that even though theirs is a very large study, its findings are not conclusive.

Atul Butte and team set out to determine how 47 common health problems affect males and females in pain scores. In a study, involving over 72,000 patients of both sexes, they found that females reported experiencing higher levels of pain in 39 of them, 14 more than men.

Butte said:

“We saw higher pain scores for female patients practically across the board. In many cases, the reported difference approached a full point on the one-to-10 scale.”

A difference of one point in the pain score is significant, the authors explained; enough to make doctors decide that a pain medication is effective.

In comparison to males, female patients tend to be more sensitive to pain related to breathing, circulation, digestion and joint conditions or disorders. Women also reported (in this study) higher levels of pain than men in migraines and neck pain.

The scientists stressed that they did not find out whether the female patients had been on any pain medication before being asked to rate their pain.

If females are enduring higher levels of pain than their male counterparts, it is important that health care professionals take this into account, the authors added.

The researchers said:

“Our data support the idea that sex differences exist, and they indicate that clinicians should pay increased attention to this idea.”

Butte said that perhaps males, because of their upbringing and the macho image they may feel compelled to project, are not being totally honest about the levels of pain they experience and how they are affected.

Pain is a difficult symptom to measure accurately. It depends on the sufferer’s subjective reporting.

Butte said:

“Men may be under-reporting it, say if they are being seen
by a female nurse.”

Previous studies had shown that the way a woman perceives pain may change, depending on where she is in her menstrual cycle; mainly because of varying estrogen blood levels. Estrogen levels in females peak just before ovulation, and go back to normal as soon as the egg is released.

When a female is giving birth, her levels of estrogen rise considerably. Rising estrogen levels trigger the release of endorphins, which in turn raise a human’s tolerance for pain.

Written by Christian Nordqvist