Women feel the pain more than men
Women feel pain more than men, more often and for longer periods of time, researchers claim.
Despite the popular belief that men are wimps when it comes to dealing with pain and the female experience of childbirth gives women the upper hand, scientists found that the opposite was true.
Several studies have now concluded that not only do women report more pain during their lives, they also experience it in more parts of the body, more often and for a longer duration compared to men.
Researchers from the University of Bath said there appeared to be a difference in how men and women thought about pain, and anxiety may affect them in different ways.
The different strategies that men and women have in coping with pain may also actually make their experience worse.
Dr Ed Keogh, a psychologist from the university's Pain Management Unit, said men may take a more problem-solving approach to pain, meaning that they think about what they can do to deal with the pain and get on with their lives.
Women, on the other hand, may be more emotional and focus on the pain and how it is making them feel, rather than thinking about how they can deal with it and get back to work, for example.
Much to learn
But scientists admit that there is still much more to learn about gender differences in coping with pain.
Dr Keogh said: "Yes, there are important differences between men and women, but that is only half the story.
"What we have to start thinking about is why are there these differences and what are the treatment implications?"
One study carried out by the university involved asking volunteers to place their arm in a bath of warm water before plunging it into a container of ice water.
The researchers measured the pain threshold - the point at which the participants first noticed pain - and pain tolerance - the point at which they could no longer stand the pain.
Women were found to have both a lower pain threshold and tolerance.
"Until fairly recently it was controversial to suggest that there were any differences between males and females in the perception and experience of pain, but that is no longer the case," Dr Keogh said.
"Research is telling us that women experience a greater number of pain episodes across their lifespan than men, in more bodily areas and with greater frequency.
"Unfortunately, all too often the differences between males and females are not considered in pain research or practice and instead are either ignored or statistically averaged."
Dr Keogh said most explanations for the gender variation concentrated on biological mechanisms, such as genetic and hormonal differences.
But he said it was becoming increasingly clear that social and psychological factors were also important.
The researchers suggested that while women tended to focus on the emotional aspects of the pain they experienced, men tended to concentrate on the physical sensations.
"Our research has shown that whilst the sensory-focussed strategies used by men helped increase their pain threshold and tolerance of pain, it was unlikely to have any benefit for women.
"Women who concentrate on the emotional aspects of their pain may actually experience more pain as a result, possibly because the emotions associated with pain are negative," Dr Keogh said.
The university is also investigating chronic pain in children.
The researchers said that as many as one in 50 children and adolescents live with severely debilitating and recurrent pain, but there is little information on how best to treat them.
Professor Chris Eccleston, director of the Pain Management Unit, said: "Many people used to think that chronic pain was a uniquely adult problem, but recent studies have shown that a number of children are severely affected by pain.
"There can be a significant effect on the child's family and our studies have shown that many parents of children who suffer with chronic pain report higher than normal levels of anxiety, as well as martial and financial problems."
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