Sex differences in thermal pain sensitivity and sympathetic reactivity for two strains of rat

J Pain. 2008 Aug;9(8):739-49. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2008.03.008. Epub 2008 May 16.


Human females are more sensitive than males to brief nociceptive stimuli such as heat and cold. However, a more pronounced peripheral vasoconstriction by females than by males during prolonged nociceptive stimulation predicts that females would be more sensitive to prolonged cold but not heat stimulation. We tested this possibility with reflex (lick/guard) and operant escape and preference tests of sensitivity to prolonged stimulation of Long-Evans and Sprague-Dawley rats. Escape responses to cold stimulation revealed a greater sensitivity of females. In contrast, males were more sensitive to nociceptive heat stimulation. An operant preference test of relative sensitivity to cold or heat stimulation confirmed these results. Cold was more aversive than heat for females, but heat was more aversive than cold for males. Recordings of skin temperature during nociceptive heat stimulation were consistent with the results of operant testing. A reduction in skin temperature (peripheral vasoconstriction) during nociceptive stimulation should increase cold sensitivity as observed for females relative to males. Lick/guard testing did not confirm the results of operant testing. Lick/guard (L/G) responding to nociceptive heat stimulation was greater for females than for males. Female escape responses to heat were more variable than males, but L/G responding of males to the same stimulus was more variable than for females.

Perspective: A variety of chronic pain conditions are more prevalent for females, and psychological stress (with attendant sympathetic activation) is implicated in development and maintenance of these conditions. Therefore, understanding relationships between gender differences in pain sensitivity and sympathetic activation could shed light on mechanisms for some varieties of chronic pain.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Cold Temperature
  • Conditioning, Operant / physiology
  • Consciousness / physiology
  • Escape Reaction / physiology
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature
  • Hyperalgesia / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Nociceptors / physiopathology*
  • Pain Measurement / methods
  • Pain Threshold / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Species Specificity
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*