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If Women Are From Venus, They Brought Their Pain With Them

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 15, 2001 -- Males and females are hardwired for pain, but the circuitry is different. That internal wiring difference, combined with sociocultural influences and a powerful push from hormones, means that when a man tells a woman that he feels her pain -- he doesn't.

The good news, according to pain researchers, is that someday "a woman who has pain may be able to get relief from a drug designed specifically for pain in women," says Jeffrey Mogil, PhD, a pain researcher at McGill University in Montreal.

And that relief can't come a minute too soon according to results of a 1999 Gallup Survey that found that 46% of American women say they experienced daily pain compared to 37% of men. Seventeen percent of women said they had frequent headaches, 24% backaches, 20% arthritis, and one in four women had sore feet.

"Pain is not what travels along the nerves," says pain researcher Roger B. Fillingim, PhD, of the University of Florida, in Gainesville. "Pain is our own personal experience ... All pain is real," he says, adding that women are two-to-three-times more likely to have migraine headaches than men, and women are six-times more likely to have fibromyalgia.

Fillingim presented new findings on gender differences in pain at a recent conference sponsored by the American Medical Women's Association and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Fillingim tells WebMD that some gender differences can be attributed to hormones. Younger women, for example, "report greater pain sensitivity during the premenstrual period."

R. Norman Harden, MD, medical director of the chronic pain care center at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, says that only one painful condition, migraine headaches, can really be attributed to hormones. During childbearing years, women are six-times more likely to have migraine headaches than men, he says.

Harden says that there are three main factors behind gender differences in pain:

  • Hormonal influences, such as what's seen with migraine headaches
  • Bodily differences among individual men and women, regarding where their pain-receiving areas are located,
  • The different ways in which men and women are raised

Fillingim agrees that society has a significant influence on male and female pain. Women may experience pain based on expectations gleaned from mothers or sisters. For example, a woman may expect more pain from a headache because she observed her mother suffering from painful headaches. "Awareness may heighten a woman's own pain experience," he says.

Fillingim, adds, however, that when it comes to reporting pain, society is more accepting of women doing it than men. He says he tested this societal difference in a laboratory experiment in which the male and female volunteers worked with either very physically attractive investigators or less-attractive investigators of the opposite sex. The male response was dependent on the investigator -- men reported less pain when the investigator was attractive, while women's responses were the same regardless.

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