He said, She said- Potential Gender Differences in Pain Experience

“Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”- or so the book title goes. More and more, however, we are discovering how the differences in our biology and physiology impact our susceptibility to, and experience of, various clinical problems.

A recent study in the journal Nature Neuroscience (published online June 29, 2015) indicated that the experience of chronic pain may differ between male and female mice. Specifically, male mice activated a different immune cell response to pain compared to female mice, even though both sexes experienced the same pain sensitivity levels. This finding has tremendous implications for development of targeted therapies for pain management in people. Yes, I know we’re not rodents but think about this…

Chronic pain can last for months or years and often persists well after the specific illness, injury or action triggering the condition has healed. National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that women are more vulnerable to this problem in multiple areas:

  • Women are more likely to experience pain (in the form of migraines, neck pain, lower back pain, or face and jaw pain) than men
  • Women are about twice as likely to experience migraines or severe headaches, or pain in the face or jaw, than men

The reasons for these differences may reflect a complex interaction between how and where we live, our underlying health and health habits, and our ability to access different types of medical care. Additional research using both males and females could help narrow the field of possibilities and focus our attention on the most meaningful issues to address, including different drug therapy approaches.

Given that Dr. Gray first published his “Mars/Venus” relationship guide in 1993, it may seem odd that this gender difference in pain experience is making news in 2015. However, including female lab animals in these types of studies has only started to take hold recently. Male animals have traditionally been the “go-to” subjects of pain research because it was assumed they don’t have the same hormonal fluctuations that female animals do. An investigator interviewed for a CBS news feature about this research had a different slant on the issue:

“In fact, if anything, there’s more variability in male animals. I think that what people forget is that male mice and rates have a source of variability that females don’t have, which is that they have dominance hierarchies in their cages and they fight.”

If you would like to read more about this story from CBS News click here.


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