Woman on couch with back pain

Bias in Women’s Pain

You may have already had this conversation with friends and family: Who is able to tolerate more pain, women or men? Some are certain women have higher pain tolerance, due to familiarity with pain during childbirth and menstrual periods. Others believe men are more adept at “toughing out” physical pain.

Scientific research shows that men and women do experience pain differently, but that gender bias may play a part in how it is treated or even measured. Here is a closer look at the complexity of this issue.

Biological & Psychological Differences

An increased number of scientific studies have been conducted to clearly establish the differences in men and women when it comes to chronic pain. “Women are more likely than men to experience a variety of chronic pain syndromes and tend to report more severe pain at more locations than do men,” the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery reported in 2020, and many similar studies agree.

But a variety of factors may contribute to this difference, including anatomy, sex-hormone levels, inflammatory response, and even genetic predisposition. In a 2019 study, for example, women who developed chronic pain after a car accident were more likely to have an elevated series of specific RNA molecules encoded on their X chromosome — which women have two of, as opposed to men who have just one.

Psychological differences may also come into play. For example, Jennifer Kelly, PhD, of the Atlanta Center for Behavioral Medicine observed in 2010 that “Women tend to focus on the emotional aspects of pain . . . [and] may actually experience more pain as a result, possibly because the emotions associated with pain are negative.” Contrasting beliefs between the sexes about articulating or expressing pain could also challenge the ability (even for patients themselves) to gauge its severity.

How Gender Bias Intervenes

Nearly 20 years ago, authors Diane Hoffman and Anita Tarzian concluded in their paper “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain,” that “In general, women report more severe levels of pain, more frequent incidences of pain, and pain of longer duration than men, but are nonetheless treated for pain less aggressively.” Further studies since have come to similar conclusions.

For example, in 2021, a report in The Journal of Pain “identifies a bias towards underestimation of pain in female patients, which is related to gender stereotypes.” Caregivers and medical professionals providers, the study concludes, “are more likely to recommend psychological treatment for females than males, and analgesics more frequently for males than females.” This means that women may not be receiving the prescriptive pain relief they need.

The gender of a care provider may not only influence treatment, but even a patient’s own articulation of her pain, as well. “I’ve noticed that women typically feel more comfortable discussing pain symptoms and being vulnerable with female health care providers,” Leia Rispoli, M.D., a pain management specialist and associate physician at Remedy Pain Solutions, told Glamour.

Inequity in medical research reinforces gender bias,” experts at Medical News Today explain. For many decades, women have been excluded from a variety of medical studies and clinical trials, leaving them out of the conversation regarding diagnosis and treatment altogether.

Individualized Treatment Can Make a Difference

Clearly identifying and articulating your pain, and advocating for your own best treatment may be the first and most effective step in finding the right pain solution to alleviate your own suffering — regardless of your gender. We are committed to finding solutions and relief for your chronic pain. Schedule an appointment with us online or call directly at 770-929-9033 to discuss what solutions may be best for you.