Sex differences in pain

Behav Brain Sci. 1997 Sep;20(3):371-80; discussion 435-513. doi: 10.1017/s0140525x97221485.


Are there sex differences in pain? For experimentally delivered somatic stimuli, females have lower thresholds, greater ability to discriminate, higher pain ratings, and less tolerance of noxious stimuli than males. These differences, however, are small, exist only for certain forms of stimulation and are affected by many situational variables such as presence of disease, experimental setting, and even nutritive status. For endogenous pains, women report more multiple pains in more body regions than men. With no obvious underlying rationale, some painful diseases are more prevalent among females, others among males and, for many diseases, symptoms differ between females and males. Sex differences in attitudes exist that affect not only reporting, coping, and responses to treatment, but also measurement and treatment. So many variables are operative, however, that the most striking feature of sex differences in reported pain experience is the apparent overall lack of them. On the other hand, deduction from known biological sex differences suggests that these are powerful sex differences in the operation of pain mechanisms. First, the vaginal canal provides an additional route in women for internal trauma and invasion by pathological agents that puts them at greater risk for developing hyperalgesia in multiple body regions. Second, sex differences in temporal patterns are likely to give rise to sex differences in how pain is "learned" and stimuli are interpreted, a situation that could lead to a greater variability and wider range of pains without obvious peripheral pathology among females. Third, sex differences in the actions of sex hormones suggest pain-relevant differences in the operation of many neuroactive agents, opiate and nonopiate systems, nerve growth factor, and the sympathetic system. Thus, while inductive analysis of existing data demonstrate more similarities than differences in pain experience between females and males, deductive analysis suggests important operational sex differences in its production.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Growth Factors / physiology
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain* / diagnosis
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sex Factors
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / physiology


  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Nerve Growth Factors
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid