Women consistently say they suffer more intense pain than men — about 20 percent more on average, even from seemingly gender-neutral ailments like sinus infections.
That's the word from a big new study that tracked reports of pain from people diagnosed with the same medical conditions. So much for the old cliche that women handle pain more easily than men. Or maybe this backs another cliche, that guys are tough and unfeeling.
Assumptions aside, the question of sex differences in pain has long been a source of confusion and controversy — and one that's been largely ignored by medical researcher until recently. Pain studies done on mice, for instance, usually don't note the mouse's sex.
"The pain research field over the past 10, 15 years has been trying to convince doctors and nurses we should be asking patients how much pain they are in," says Atul Butte, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford whose lab specializes in analyzing big, complex hunks of data.
That's no small issue. A report last year from the independent Institute of Medicine found that pain costs the county $635 billion a year in medical treatments and lost productivity.
Stanford Medical Center had been asking patients that question — asking them to rate their pain on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the most horrible pain possible.
Butte and his colleagues mined the records of more than 11,000 patients between 2007 and 2010 to compare the responses of women and men with the same medical diagnosis.
That large number of participants is intended to overcome problems with earlier studies, which had too few participants to reliably reveal differences.
Women consistently reported experiencing more pain, even for things like back and neck pain, knee and ankles strains, complications of HIV, and sinusitis. The results were reported online today in the Journal of Pain.
The reports are inevitably subjective. "An 18-year-old man who asks about a pain is going to give a different pressure if his mom is present or not," Butte told Shots. But he thinks that the large number of patients helps wash away those social and cultural factors.
But since doctors use pain reports to figure out of medication is working, or if a patient needs more relief, the difference, if supported by other studies, could make it more likely that patients get appropriate treatment.
This study doesn't get at why women and men report pain differently. The reasons could be biological, cultural or psychological.
And science may never be able to say with certainty if men and women really feel pain differently. "I don't know if we'll ever be able to answer that," Butte says. "It's like asking, is the color red you see the same as the color red I see?"