Do women have higher pain thresholds than men?

If you’re a woman who has given birth then you probably think this one is a shoe-in. If so prepare for a shock, because women actually have a lower pain threshold than men.

It seems obvious that women must be more resilient to pain because they have to cope with childbirth. Perhaps they are more resilient in that situation but unfortunately men lack the equipment necessary for a fair comparison.

When it comes to other kinds of pain which can be compared between men and women, the results show women have, on average, lower thresholds. In an experimental setting with carefully controlled stimulation of the skin, women report more pain from the same stimulus than men do. Women also report more pain from disease, injury and the kind of transient pains that plague us all.

The actual differences between men and women, while real, are very small, and it is hard to interpret what they really mean. Women and men are obviously different, from the skeleton all the way up to hormones. Those differences affect the causes and perception of pain. And studies on pain, conducted in a nice tidy lab by kind scholarly-looking folks who prick your skin or ask you questions, don’t replicate everyday conditions very well.

Pain is a very subjective thing: there is much more to it than the receptors in the body. There are lots of explanations for the results produced by these studies. Maybe women are more at risk of painful problems, maybe female sex hormones amplify the sensations, maybe women are expected to be more sensitive to pain and so make more noise about it to conform. There are lots of other possibilities like this which we are only now beginning to appreciate. And it may even be advantageous, allowing women to detect problems earlier.

In practical terms it probably doesn’t matter much. Women may, on average, have slightly lower pain thresholds than men, but not so much as you would usually notice. In the end if you whack your funny bone then, male or female, you’ll feel it.

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