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According to feminine lore, guys simply don't handle pain well.
The tiniest twinge of discomfort is enough to reduce most men into helpless,
whimpering heaps. Women, on the other hand, can handle the tough stuff. In
fact, you can ratchet up the old pain-o-meter to agony and beyond and most
women will soldier on without flinching.
The trouble with that theory is -- it's wrong. And now men have
the science to prove it.
"The laboratory research seems to indicate that for many
kinds -- but not all kinds -- of stimuli, women have a lower tolerance
for pain," says Linda LeResche, ScD, a professor of oral medicine at the
University of Washington, in Seattle.
But what exactly that means is a puzzle LeResche and other pain
researchers across the country are trying to work through. The fact is, no one
really knows for sure if women and men perceive pain differently, let alone how
they react to it.
Untangling the Mystery of Pain
"There are [so many] overlays of societal and cultural
norms and other factors that go into the reporting of pain that it may not have
a biological basis at all," says Robert Gear, an assistant professor of
oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of California, in San
Francisco. "It certainly could have a biological basis, but there is no way
to test it so far."
Researchers have been trying for decades to untangle the
mystery of pain. An important breakthrough came in the mid-1960s when
scientists discovered that the brain could change or modulate the nervous
system in response to pain. Until then it was believed the nerve-brain-pain
connection was fixed and inflexible.
"There is some experimental research that suggests the pain
modulation systems between men and women may be different," LeResche says.
"Females may also have an additional system that uses estrogen."
The 1990s were a fertile time in pain research. What we now
know is that pain begins when nociceptors -- small, thin fibers located
throughout the body in peripheral nerves -- register trauma to nearby tissue.
During surgery, for instance, nociceptors fire as soon as the initial incision
is made. They release a bath of chemicals that induces the nerves to carry the
pain message to the brain. The chemicals collect in a part of the spinal cord
called the dorsal horn and are released to the brain -- where pain is
Even with general anesthesia, a patient's central nervous
system remains alert and ushers pain messages back and forth from the
nociceptor, through the nerves, into the spinal cord, and on to the brain. The
brain responds by washing the spinal cord with glutamate, a chemical that
rewires the central nervous system and creates a physical memory of pain.