What is Pain?
Physiologically speaking, pain is felt when our bodies perceive unpleasant stimuli. Those stimuli travel along nerve pathways and are interpreted by our brains as painful. Perception is a key element in the understanding of pain, as it speaks to the varying thresholds both men and women possess. The ways in which we treat, view, and understand pain are not only related to physical discomfort, but emotional and mental, too.
There are two types of pain that can best be described as acute or chronic. Acute pain occurs suddenly and can be quite jarring and unexpected. Chronic pain is a state of ongoing discomfort that causes, for some, differing degrees of suffering from one moment to the next. Within these two categories are additional classifications of pain that are used to describe, as accurately as possible, the causes or sources of pain.
Neuropathic pain is the result of damage done to the peripheral nervous system, tends to come on in waves of acute pain, and causes discomfort, numbness, and sudden, stabbing misery. On the other hand, central pain is the result of ongoing medical conditions such as abscesses, infections, and tumors. Central pain is chronic and can range in severity, on a consistent basis. Ultimately, these pain classifications can help health care professionals more accurately diagnose and treat pain.
How Pain is Interpreted by Men and Women
There are plenty of anecdotal descriptions of the ways in which men and women interpret their pain. Men are often seen as weak and run down by even the mildest of flu like symptoms, whereas women are seen, in general, as weathering pain even when it appears debilitating. While such narratives provide plenty of fodder for comedians, science does not, at least entirely, support these claims.
Studies find that men and women have been socialized to respond to different types of pain in remarkably different ways. Men for example, are given permission to feel pain and discomfort to a point, while alternately being discouraged from crying. The phrase “man up” is a way in which boys and men are reminded to be stoic and aloof when it comes to expressing pain, whether physical or emotional.
Women on the other hand, have been granted permission to be sensitive and tearful when they experience pain. While sociological factors play a big role in this perception, science supports the fact that women feel more pain because they have more nerve receptors than men. This does not equate to being weaker or more emotional, but does indicate that biologically speaking, women feel pain more intensely.
Pain Threshold- Defined
How we describe our pain and how much we can take is not only based on gender, as pain is highly subjective. One’s pain threshold defines, for each person, the upper limit of pain that can be tolerated. How much pain you can handle is intimately connected to your physical and emotional health, age, past experiences, and perceptions of what being in pain means to you. While some women, for example, can breathe calmly through the most intense points of labor, others can be heard screaming at seemingly earlier, easier stages. And while there are men that appear to crumble under the weight of the flu, others need to be told to stay home and not go to work, lest their mild symptoms become major concerns.
Factors That Affect Pain Perception, Threshold, and Tolerance
Pain is an issue that affects public welfare on a global as well as individual basis. Where we live, how we conduct ourselves, the convictions we hold dear, the alcohol or other substances we use for fun or comfort, and our overall worldviews affect how severely, or not, we perceive pain. For example, individuals who find themselves in dangerous situations, such as combat, may not translate gaping wounds as painfully as they appear because their focus has to be on survival in the moment. Folks who live in environments that are safe, nurturing, and highly attentive, may translate more minor injuries as horrifically painful.
What we know from the literature on pain and gender is that determining who feels worse is not always easy to discern. In fact determinants such as genetics, learned behaviors of childhood, and how those around us interpret our pain, are all part of how we understand it. Psychological health is a huge part of this equation, as is education and understanding of why we are in pain and how we can treat it.
Dr. Jennifer Graham summarizes this all quite well. In an article written for Penn State in 2008 she was quoted as saying that, “Overall, I think it’s important to know that men and women respond similarly to pain at a biological level.” The author of the article, Alexa Stevenson, concluded by saying that, “How much it hurts may depend upon who’s asking.”
Dr. Shahen Kurestian, DC of Body Systems and Wellness in Glendale, California is available to discuss pain and symptom relief for men and women, no matter how strongly, or not, they feel it.