Gendered Pain

Just when you think the scales can’t tip any further, they do. It is well known that women have the sexually dimorphic predisposition to anxiety and depression. And, in keeping with this understanding, yet furthering it as well, it has been found that women – again – respond differently to pain than men do. Gender differences arise in the perception of pain, how it is coped with, how often it is reported, and how drugs affect the alleviation of it.

A noteworthy article suggests that morphine has different effects on the brains and spinal cords of male and female brains. Research has shown that females require twice the dosage of morphine compared to males in order to experience the same amount of pain relief. This has a physiological basis as well:

“Morphine binds to mu opioid receptors – cell membrane proteins that influence the behavior of cells – in order to decrease pain… Although this protein is located in the same brain region, males seem to have higher levels of the receptor than females, and it is expressed differently.”

Up until this point, my disposition towards physiological gender differences did not include the very mechanisms that both males and females share, yet put to use in widely different ways. I now recognize that it may be safer to bet that males and females operate in distinct ways, although they may have similar tools (in certain situations). This research on mu opioid receptors suggests a biological foundation for sexual dimorphisms regarding pain and (potentially) depression and anxiety. Thus, future research could explore the efficacy of certain dosages of pain medication in men and women – recognizing that it is not solely a function of weight and age.

On the most basic of levels, this article also revealed that men tend to process pain with the right side of the amygdala – and has more connections from the brain to the external environment – whereas women process pain with the left side of their amygdala – typically connected with internal functions. This takes me to the classical situation of a girl and guy breaking up. The girl runs to her friends, cries, talks through her feelings, and creates understandings that focus on her strengths. On the other hand, the guy takes his anger out by playing a game of pick up (insert sport here), and may hook up with some other girl the next weekend. It seems that on the most fundamental of levels – chemical, physiological, anatomical – men and women are different. Of course, men and women are both of the human species, but beyond that, there may be little else we have in common.

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5 thoughts on “Gendered Pain

  1. I thought this article was so interesting. I’ve heard of differences in structures between male and female brains (relating to corpus callosum, etc.) . But this is the first I’ve heard of different processing of pain- fascinating!

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  2. Very interesting research, but the example at the end seems to reflect cultural norms (and maybe some gender stereotypes) more than lateralized function in the amygdala. In both cases, the recently dumped partner relies on external social supports.

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  3. While the brain differences obviously play a part in the individual differences between males in females in handling pain, a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, referenced in Scientific American, suggests that pain differences may be due to protein differences between males and females, rather than brain anatomy. In a study done on mice, pain threshold was tested on “regular mice” and those that lacked the GIRK2 protein. While the differences in brain anatomy are legitimate justifications for pain thresholds, proteins and other neurobiological factors should be taken into account.

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  4. I am fascinated by the idea of adding a gender category into the formula for determining pain medication dosage. The discovery that men and women actually have different pain receptor levels is quite interesting. However, we now also know that there are not just two sexes, male and female. Sex is more of a continuum and there can be extreme variations within one category. I wonder if the amount of receptors varies based on hormone levels or another factor within a certain sex.

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  5. The physiological basis of sexual dimorphism is certainly interesting and well-documented, and the article you found is contributing to that literature. Of course, borrowing material learned from adolescent and adult development, reaction to pain is not only physiological. Gender codes play critical role in how people respond to emotion and pain. Again, though, the morphine finding does show it is not only sociological/psychological.

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