Gender Differences in the Brain lead to Gender Differences in Pain

  • Being a woman can be a pain in the … Well, you can complete that sentence because you know what I’m talking about. Women really do experience pain differently than men. Women are also more susceptible to chronic pain than men. Although it sometimes seems like women got the short end of the straw, the unique experience of being a woman can also bring to light unique solutions for women too.


    From a purely biological and evolutionary stand-point, women are built to have babies. The outwardly signs of the female gender do not account for the overwhelming evidence that women experience pain more frequently, intensely and persistently than men1. You have to look beyond the obvious to find out why being a woman can be a pain in the …

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    You really have to examine the central nervous system to understand the gender differences in the pain experience. The brain and spinal cord are being closely examined by scientists hoping to solve this gender riddle. Within the nervous system are pain pathways and processing centers that control the way pain is experienced. Some women are exquisitely sensitive to pain. Some women have more intense feelings of pain. And some women experience chronic pain. As scientists explore these differences, questions are being answered. And answers can lead to solutions.


    One interesting answer that was just reported is that a sex hormone, testosterone, alters critical pain pathways in the brain2. These scientists were exploring the reason why birth control pills are linked to painful conditions. As a result of their exploration, they discovered that women with significantly reduced testosterone levels are much more sensitive to painful stimuli. This finding seems to be particularly true in the women who were taking oral contraception pills and as a result of taking the pill also had a low endogenous estradiol, low progesterone environment. Does this mean that testosterone supplementation might be a method of treating chronic pain in women? That’s a question that has yet to be answered.


    Another group of scientists discovered that the pain pathways and control centers in the brain are altered in women who experience dysmenorrhoea (very painful menstruation) compared to women who do not have dysmenorrhoea3. Women with dysmenorrhoea have increased sensitivity to pain and limited ability to deactivate central processing centers for painful stimuli. Does this mean that having severely painful menstruation cycles makes women vulnerable to other painful conditions? Or does this mean that underlying differences in the brain make some women vulnerable to painful conditions including dysmenorrhoea? This chicken-or-the-egg question has yet to be answered.


    Even with so many unanswered questions, women can rest assured that being a woman is a unique experience and that that uniqueness will lead to gender-specific solutions for the treatment of pain. Women who take birth control pills should be closely monitored for the development of painful conditions so that corrections to the hormonal imbalances can be made. Women who experience dysmenorrhoea need to be treated adequately so that one painful experience does not lead to another. All of these possible gender-specific solutions are illuminated by the fact that many gender differences exist deep down in the brain and are the key to why being a woman can be a pain in the …


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    1. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2012 Dec;13(12):859-66

    2. Pain. 2012 Dec 5. pii: S0304-3959(12)00629-X

    3. Pain. 2011 Sep;152(9):1966-75


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Published On: January 18, 2013