are the Hardier Sex...
She gets a tooth pulled, then drives herself home, makes dinner
for four, does the laundry and helps the kids with their homework.
He gets a tooth pulled and his
universe slams to a halt, as he waits for the pain to go away.
Caricatures? Sure. But the debate
over who can really stand more pain has been one of the more interesting
battles of the sexes, spanning generations.
Now, however, new research is bringing
that battle into a whole new arena, with strong evidence that
the traditionally "weaker" sex may be hardier after
"I think men have always secretly
suspected that in order to go through childbirth a woman has to
be pretty tough. Now we have some new science to back up the idea
that women may be better able to cope with pain than men -- at
least during certain periods of their life," says Dr. James
N. Dillard, author of the The Chronic Pain Solution and
an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College
of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.
The secret weapon? Estrogen. Produced
by the ovaries in peak amounts during the reproductive years,
and in lesser amounts later in life, the hormone's influence may
extend far beyond a woman's reproductive tract. Its powers may
reach straight to the pain centers of the brain.
"Although pain is influenced
by many factors, it's clear that estrogen plays an important role
in the individual response," says Dr. Jon-Kar Zubieta, a
neuroscientist at the University of Michigan who has published
several studies investigating links between sex hormones and pain.
One way estrogen helps women to
cope with pain, he says, is by increasing the availability of
endorphins -- brain chemicals that help dampen the pain response.
When estrogen levels are high,
there's an increased number of areas in the brain where endorphins
can "park." The more "parking places" available,
Zubieta says, the more endorphins there are on call, waiting to
flood the body with "feel good" chemicals capable of
overriding pain signals.
"That's one reason why women
can get through the pain of childbirth -- right before they give
birth, their estrogen levels are soaring, so their ability to
cope with pain is expanded," Zubieta says.
Conversely, studies show this same
level of pain protection may drop precipitously the closer a woman
gets to menopause, a time when estrogen levels can plummet. That
fact, says Dillard, may be one reason why so many women begin
to feel more aches and pains as they cross the threshold into
"It's not that they are experiencing
more things going wrong with their body, as much as they are experiencing
a level of pain they were not feeling before," Dillard explains.
As far back as 1993, an animal
study published in the journal Pain found that when their
ovaries were intact, female rats were far less likely to experience
pain than when the ovaries were removed. More recently, studies
conducted at the University of Massachusetts revealed that women
may have more muscle endurance during exercise than men, thanks
again to estrogen, which works to reduce soreness and pain after
Research also shows testosterone
levels make little difference in how male rats experience pain,
indicating this hormone may not have the same effect on men as
estrogen does on women.
But when it comes to perceiving
pain, it's not just hormones that matter. Dillard says social
and cultural conditioning matters as well.
"We know that pain pathways
go directly into the primitive emotional parts of the brain --
the limbic system. But the degree to which you react to that pain
is culturally learned," says Dillard.
What can also matter: Previous
experience with pain.
Because women are preconditioned
to at least some degree of monthly menstrual pain, not to mention
a pretty hefty level of discomfort during childbirth, Dillard
suspects they may react with less alarm when other types of pain
occur. And this, he says, may make a big difference when it comes
time to have that tooth pulled.
"Research has shown that the
more upset somebody is about pain -- man or woman -- the more
they tend to amplify pain signals and the worse the pain feels,"
Dillard says. "So, if a woman is used to pain, she will be
less alarmed by pain signals, and that leads to better tolerance."
The study of gender-based pain
is still in its infancy. And while it's beginning to appear as
if women may have some biochemical advantages, ironically, women
are also more likely to suffer from pain syndrome illnesses --
conditions such as fibromyalgia, lupus, multiple sclerosis and
For more information on chronic
pain, visit The
American Pain Foundation or the National
Foundation for the Treatment of Pain.
Reference Source 101