Women Hurt More Than Men, Due to Both Biology and Bias

By Michael Brooks | March 6, 2015 2:35 pm

woman in pain

You might have heard that men are wimps when it comes to pain. It can make for lighthearted argument, but in fact it’s not true. Women have a lower pain threshold. Take a man and a woman, put a piece of ice on the backs of their hands, and wait. The woman will almost certainly complain about the pain first.

Not all pain is equal, but women are definitely worse off. In some quite macabre experiments, researchers have shown that women are much more sensitive to electric shocks, muscle pain, hot and cold, and chemical pain, such as the discomfort of eating a vindaloo curry.

If this comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. According to surveys, two-thirds of women still think that men feel more pain than they do. (Men are far less convinced of that; only one third think they are worse off when it comes to pain.)

And this isn’t some half-witted attempt to make out that men are the stronger sex. It’s a serious call to the medical system to improve the way they treat women’s pain.

Signs of Discomfort

It starts at home. Studies show that women are more likely than men to make an effort to make themselves look presentable or even attractive before going to the doctor. That could be a big mistake.

A number of studies have found that doctors unconsciously decide that, whatever she says, a woman who is looking attractive can’t be in that much pain. When researchers asked 362 nurses about whether, in their experience, women have a worse deal with pain, only 10 percent of them said yes. Nurses unconsciously assess a patient’s need for painkillers partly by whether she is showing obvious signs of discomfort.

That’s why, according to research, nurses devote more time to treating a male patients’ pain. It’s also why, when they wake up from surgery, women get fewer painkillers, weight for weight, than men.

Women have been putting on a brave face, and what have they gained? More pain, for longer, and with fewer painkillers to help.

The stereotype about women and pain can even lead to dangerous psychiatric diagnoses. After surgery, a woman complaining of pain is more likely than a man to be given sedatives rather than painkillers. A woman in hospital might be experiencing the same chronic pain as a man in the next ward, but the woman is the more likely to be diagnosed as “histrionic,” studies show. In other words, doctors believe she is showing excessive emotional and attention-seeking behavior.

Matters of Life and Death

Our ongoing ignorance about the different ways men and women experience pain has almost certainly led to premature deaths — especially when the pain is related to heart disease.

Heart attacks are different for women: instead of the classic chest pain they might feel a discomfort in their shoulder blades or jaw or neck. In addition a classic symptom for women is abdominal pain and nausea. That can fool an unwary doctor into making a wrong diagnosis. That’s why some women suffering a heart attack often don’t get an ECG or an angiogram that would be given to a man with chest pain.

Men are twice as likely to receive early medical attention for a heart attack, and be given the right drugs and operations at the right time. Not that all the drugs will have been tested on men and women equally — most are still tested primarily on men. Despite making up more than half the general population, and despite being more likely than men to die of cardiovascular disease, women are a rarity in trials of cardiovascular drugs.

No wonder that men who have a heart attack aged fifty-five or under are twice as likely to survive as women in the same position.

Improving Gender Medicine

In fact, there is a broad swathe of medical issues that affect men and women differently. We both have livers, for instance, but hepatitis C occurs primarily in women. Women suffer more side effects from drugs than men do and are more likely to have autoimmune disorders. Colon cancer in women manifests itself differently from the way it occurs in men.

The list goes on, and yet medicine, leaving aside the obvious physiological differences, treats men and women essentially as the same organism. Perhaps the most awful fact of all is that we have known most of this for decades. So why haven’t we done anything about it?

Attempts to deal with this have had very limited success. It’s not that the people who train our doctors don’t know about issues of gender. It’s just that they don’t see it as terribly relevant. A study of how gender issues in medicine were being taught in notoriously egalitarian Sweden revealed that the men who designed doctors’ training courses (yes, mostly men, even in Sweden) saw it as important — but a low priority.

It’s hard to see the situation changing quickly. Most medical training still skips over the issues. One examination of how medical courses treat gender found that only a third of students could remember the topic even coming up. None of those students felt equipped to address the problem once they were qualified.

There are only a few upsides to being a woman when it comes to pain. One is that nice smells distract women from their pain, but that tactic does nothing for men. And morphine, it seems, actually works better for women. The last ray of hope is that studies show doctors tend to give more painkillers to patients of the same sex. In the next few years the world will have more female doctors than male doctors. That means you’re going to be slightly better off.

But it’s not exactly great comfort. As Tammy Wynette sung, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. But never more so than when you’re in pain.

 

Michael Brooks’s At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise is published by The Overlook Press.

 

Image by Bloomua/ Shutterstock

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  • soratothamax

    When you say women experience pain, are you trying to say women experience pain more often or that women experience it more intensely? There is a difference between feeling something OFTEN and feeling something intense when they feel it.

    You mentioned the example of the ice. There could be two different kinds of reflexes. Either the women experiencing the ice are not as accustomed to ice coming down the back, or when presented with the ice were accustomed to being more open with their fears. Or, if the women were not accustomed to cold objects, they would more than likely react easier than someone who is used to cold objects.

    Well, Mr. Brooks, perhaps women do feel more pain than men, but because they do, they are also USED to feeling pain. Therefore, they may have become accustomed to pain, which is where the idea that men can’t deal with pain comes from. Pain therefore is adapted to a woman’s daily life. It’s mind over body. The body may test out as experiencing the pain much more, but the mind controls that body, and if a woman thinks of the pain as nothing more than the pain she has experienced when menstruating/giving birth, then she will more than likely not panic over it because it will not be registered in the brain as a major threat. When our bodies are positive about something, we may deal with pain better. Men may NOT experience pain are harshly, but the little pain they actually do experience is not often, therefore, they can’t deal with that small amount of pain. Their bodies have not adjusted or created coping techniques to combat pain. Men may not feel pain right away, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting their bodies right away. Just like with people who have numbness. They may not feel their legs hurting, but it doesn’t mean damage isn’t being done. Men are not expecting to feel pain when they do things, so they don’t react as fast. But damage happens when you don’t react to pain right away, creating harsher pain. Where women feel it quicker, they are likely to find ways to fight the pain.

    When thinking of statistics we have to really understand what was considered in the sampling as well. Some stats may show women, but what we don’t know is whether these women have experienced ice, or whatever object before, or not. We don’t know whether ethnicity shows a significant difference in the way they experience pain, or whether age creates a big difference. And without providing sources for this article, I can only dismiss it as an opinion.

    • Hibernia86

      I think the stereotype that men can’t handle pain comes from the fact that our culture expects men to handle more pain. When a man gives into pain, he is called a wuss. When women give into pain, it is considered okay because they are a woman. So thus even though women might give into pain at a higher rate, as a society we notice the men failing more simply because it isn’t what is expected of them.

      Also in our society it isn’t acceptable to make negative stereotypes about women because of the oppression they experienced historically, but our society is more accepting of negative stereotypes about men. Women like to think well of themselves so they are more likely to think of themselves as better at handling pain than men even if it isn’t actually true. Society is far less likely to call out a woman making a sexist comment than it is to call out a man making a sexist comment.

      • koq45

        What society do you live in? Because in my society, I see negative stereotypes of women all. The. Time.

        Have you ever noticed how men are always teased for acting like a woman? About how wearing the color pink is too “girly” and somehow that’s wrong? About how being a stay at home dad is a “woman’s job” and that’s somehow wrong? That being a nurse is not a man’s career, but a woman’s?

        Have you ever noticed that being a lesbian is okay, but being a gay man is not? And not just because of religion, but because men are supposed to be masculine, and if they aren’t, they’re “acting like a woman” like that’s somehow wrong?

        If you really want to dismantle negative stereotypes about men, perhaps you should concentrate your efforts on dismantling negative stereotypes about women.

        Examples:

        “Running like a girl”
        “Looking like a girl”
        “Man up!”

        Why is it an insult to men to be compared to a woman? What’s so wrong with being a female in this society?

    • Philip Owen

      If you think men do not feel pain often I invite you to try some of the jobs I have had over the years. You think loading 5,000 bricks a day onto scaffolding doesn’t hurt? You think cutting beef for 40 odd hours a week doesn’t hurt? You think shifting 15 tonnes of product a day doesn’t hurt? For the past 18 years I have been punishing my body and I have always found ways to cope with the pain, make it to the end of the day, the end of the week. Your statement is nothing more than an attempt to belittle men. For years I have been told not to make generalisations about women but clearly the men in your life are cut from a different cloth than the guys I work with. Is it right for you to judge the entire gender from your own limited experience? This is why I need meninism!

    • Sominex83

      please, if you punched my boyfriend in the chest he wouldn’t budge, if you did it to me I’d probably fall to the ground in agony. We aren’t equal. Women experience more pain, we aren’t big strong tough guys. I’m sick of these feminist myths being perpetuated.

  • Julie Stout

    You are incorrect about who can cope longer with the icy hand though, Mythbusters tackled this and found that women can bear pain stoically longer than men on average. Any tattoo artist would tell you the same thing.

    • Hibernia86

      And how large was the mythbuster’s sample size? Was it just a few people? They don’t seem like the kind of show to set up the huge number of trials needed to truly test the idea.

      As far as the tattoo artists go, if what you say is actually true (and I haven’t seen a survey of tattoo artists on this issue) I think it is probably due to a bias on their part. Like I said in a comment above, men are expected to handle more pain so when they fail, they are noticed far more than women who fail to handle pain. Also, since women have historically faced more sexism than men, people (including tattoo artists) like to show support to women by pointing out their strengths, even if the pattern they give isn’t accurate.

    • Boris Svetiev

      You are not telling the whole story. They also found that women who have given natural birth have the highest pain threshold, then are men and women who have not given birth yet have the lowest pain threshold.

  • Tina

    I believe the author means intensely… I don’t know about the example with the ice cube on the hand… it’s a fact a man’s skin is 25% thicker than woman’s… I just don’t have any proof that they have the same amount of temp sensitive nerves on the hand or if they are just as superficial… Oh well, I don’t really agree based on gender. Everyone is different.

  • Scott

    Women are not more likely to die of heart disease:

    • Toomra

      Yes, men have higher incidence and death rate from heart disease overall but the article is correct about the death rate of women following an actual heart attack compared to men.

  • Scott

    Also, saying that women are more likely to be treated with sedatives or are more likely to be categorized as histrionic has an implied assumption that men and women should be equally treated with sedatives or should be equally histrionic, which runs opposite to the point of your article. women may feel pain more and be more histrionic

  • Hibernia86

    One difference between how the genders are treated is how people respond to the differences. When people thought that men experienced more pain, then it was a way to mock men and express how women were better. But suddenly now that the article says that women feel more pain, now it is seen as a medical crisis that needs solving. And again at the end of the article where it talks about there being more female doctors in the future. When there were fewer female doctors it was seen as an issue of gender inequality, but now that male doctors will supposedly be in the minority it is spun as something good that will help women. I really wish that we as a culture would consider gender inequalities bad in all instances rather than just the instances that women are harmed.

    • koq45

      One difference between how the races are treated is how people respond to the differences. When people thought that whites experienced more pain, then it was a way to mock whites and express how blacks were better. But suddenly now that the article says that blacks feel more pain, now it is seen as a medical crisis that needs solving. And again at the end of the article where it talks about there being more black doctors in the future. When there were fewer black doctors it was seen as an issue of racial inequality, but now that white doctors will supposedly be in the minority it is spun as something good that will help blacks. I really wish that we as a culture would consider racial inequalities bad in all instances rather than just the instances that blacks are harmed.

      Do you see how idiotic you sound when you say stuff like that? Do you not understand what oppression is?

      • Hibernia86

        Actually I think you sound idiotic for thinking those changes to the comment would matter. Why did you think that changing it to race would make any difference? You shouldn’t mock people for feeling pain regardless of their race or gender. You shouldn’t treat someone in pain as more important just because of their race or gender. We should make sure that everyone regardless of race or gender has the chance to be a doctor if they are willing to work for it. I’m sure you believe that you are better than most other people when it comes to race or gender equality, but your comments make it clear that you have no clue. Equality means treating everyone the same regardless of race or gender. Why does that idea make you so mad?

        • koq45

          I wasn’t mad, I was hoping you would see how ridiculous you sound for not understanding what oppression does to a whole group of people.

  • GuestWhom

    A couple of things are big factors that this study seems to be overlooking. One is genetics…some people, men and women, have genes for high pain tolerance while others do not. Also as others have pointed out, males are generally trained at a young age to ignore their pain because that’s what our culture expects men to do while the same isn’t always expected of women and this has a huge impact on pain tolerance.

  • Jose Carlos Lazarte Aspíllaga

    Where can I find such studies? And aren’t there huge individual differences? I know men who can’t handle the mildest of spicy foods and men who can punch a wall like it’s nothing.

  • David Mowers

    Men learn to psychologically deal with pain very early on by fighting and experiencing painful events through nature discovery and risk-taking.

    It hurts the same but you get used to it so you can ignore it.

  • David Mowers

    Those terms are not used to oppress women but to disenfranchise male competitors for female mates.

    If women did not respond to it men would not do it to other men.

  • Jaslyn

    But couldn’t women simply be more vocal when it comes to discomfort? That study sounds really unreliable…

  • Sominex83

    Only another woman can understand the lifetime of pain that is being female, and even then I’ve been treated like crap by a lot of them.

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