Brain and Body

Who Tolerates Pain Best — Men or Women?

October 8, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Nurse injects a woman's arm
Photo credit: Works Progress Administration

Science says the answer to this question relies on a number of variables, not just biological sex and gender.

Which gender can tolerate the most pain? We’ve all heard the argument that women can bear the most pain, thanks to an evolutionary function that helps moms endure the excruciating pain of childbirth. However, the scientific evidence to support that claim isn’t so black and white. In many instances, men seem to have a much higher tolerance for pain than women.

There are two factors that play into how people deal with pain — pain threshold and pain tolerance. Pain threshold represents the point at which someone first starts to sense pain after being exposed to it, like the initial prick of a needle. Pain tolerance refers to the amount of pain someone can physically endure before it becomes too agonizing to handle. When it comes to it, however, pain is deeply subjective and it’s difficult to measure it on an equal scale.

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A team of researchers at Stanford University reviewed over 11,000 medical records to compare clinically recorded pain scores between men and women for a number of illnesses and injuries.  The study found that women tended to feel pain more intensely for the majority of the pain sources, including lower back pain, sprained knees, and acute inflammation. If you’ve ever been seen by a doctor over something that’s been causing you pain, you’re likely familiar with the pain rating scale that goes from zero to 10: zero being no pain at all and 10 representing the most excruciating pain imaginable. On average, women in the study rated their pain almost a full point higher than men did.

However, since pain is highly subjective, relying on self-reported data doesn’t necessarily solve the gender versus pain mystery. The most telling way to measure the differences in pain tolerance between the sexes is to test it out in experimental settings, which in this case means that researchers deliberately caused participants pain and then asked them how they felt.

According to Science Alert, men were, overall, found to be more tolerant of pain than women. An explanation for this could lie in the biological differences between men and women — men’s bodies tend to release more pain-relieving biochemicals, like beta-endorphins.

Nonetheless, pain is still a sensation that is experienced differently by each individual, and gender roles play a huge part in how people report their pain. In a society where boys are socialized to believe that “crying is for girls,” it’s much less likely that they’ll complain about pain, even if it’s at the brink of being unbearable. In order to be perceived as tough, men may be able to withstand higher levels of pain due to psychological forces.

When it comes down to it, there may never be a definitive answer for which gender can tolerate the most pain. And as AsapSCIENCE artfully articulated, we may never know what hurts more— giving birth or getting kicked in the balls.


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