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Men have a higher pain threshold when females are treating them

A recent study suggests that men may experience less pain when treated by female healthcare providers compared to male ones. Researchers from Lund University in Sweden conducted experiments involving healthy volunteers and patients in hospital settings to explore this phenomenon.

Gender difference in pain perception

In one experiment, participants were subjected to a laser pulse on the foot arch by examiners of both genders. The findings indicated that male participants reported a higher pain threshold when treated by female examiners, even though the examiners followed identical procedures and scripts. Interestingly, this gender difference in pain perception was not observed in female participants.

A separate experiment involved participants self-administering a mild electric current and indicating when they felt pain. This test was repeated with both male and female examiners. Results showed that both male and female participants could endure more pain when a female examiner was present.

Additionally, a clinical study involving 245 post-surgical patients across three hospital wards revealed that male patients reported slightly less pain when their pain levels were assessed by female investigators. This gender-specific difference in pain reporting was not observed in female patients.

Study significance 

Lead author Anna Engskov, a consultant in anaesthesiology and intensive care at Lund, highlighted the potential significance of these findings for patient care, particularly in situations of intense pain requiring relief. 

“For the individual patient it can matter, especially given that the differences in pain were greatest when it hurt so much that the patients started asking for pain relief,” she explained. In addition, she suggested that silent communication factors like empathy, indicated by more smiles and direct eye contact, might play a role, although the exact reasons for these differences remain unclear.

Professor Jonas Åkeson from Skåne University Hospital in Malmö, who supervised the experiments, emphasized that this is the first time such results have been confirmed both experimentally and clinically. These insights into the gender dynamics of pain evaluation could enhance patient care and pain management strategies.

Pain perception 

Pain perception, also known as nociception, is the sensory process that provides the signals that lead to the experience of pain. It involves the detection of potentially harmful stimuli by nociceptors (sensory neurons) and the transmission of this information to the brain, where it is processed and interpreted as pain. 

This process is crucial for survival as it triggers reflexes and behaviors that protect the body from harm. Pain perception can be influenced by various factors including physical condition, emotional state, cultural background, and prior experiences with pain.

Pain threshold

People with a higher pain threshold can tolerate a greater intensity of painful stimuli before perceiving it as pain. This threshold varies significantly among individuals due to a combination of genetic, physiological, psychological, and environmental factors.

Genetic factors

Some people are genetically predisposed to have a higher pain tolerance. Variations in genes related to the nervous system can affect how pain signals are processed and perceived.

Physiological factors

Differences in nerve function and the efficiency of the body’s natural pain-inhibiting mechanisms can influence pain threshold. For instance, higher levels of endorphins, natural painkillers produced by the body, can raise the pain threshold.

Psychological factors

Mental and emotional states like focus, anxiety, or stress can impact pain perception. For example, athletes or soldiers in high-stress situations often report not feeling pain until after the stressful event is over.

Environmental and cultural factors

 Exposure to pain, cultural attitudes towards pain, and learned behaviors can also influence one’s pain threshold. People who are frequently exposed to painful stimuli might develop a higher tolerance over time.

The study is published in the journal Biology of Sex Differences.

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