Opposing Roles of Estradiol and Testosterone on Stress-Induced Visceral Hypersensitivity in Rats

J Pain. 2018 Jul;19(7):764-776. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2018.02.007. Epub 2018 Mar 2.


Chronic stress produces maladaptive pain responses, manifested as alterations in pain processing and exacerbation of chronic pain conditions including irritable bowel syndrome. Female predominance, especially during reproductive years, strongly suggests a role of gonadal hormones. However, gonadal hormone modulation of stress-induced pain hypersensitivity is not well understood. In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that estradiol is pronociceptive and testosterone is antinociceptive in a model of stress-induced visceral hypersensitivity (SIVH) in rats by recording the visceromotor response to colorectal distention after a 3-day forced swim (FS) stress paradigm. FS induced visceral hypersensitivity that persisted at least 2 weeks in female, but only 2 days in male rats. Ovariectomy blocked and orchiectomy facilitated SIVH. Furthermore, estradiol injection in intact male rats increased SIVH and testosterone in intact female rats attenuated SIVH. Western blot analyses indicated estradiol increased excitatory glutamate ionotropic receptor NMDA type subunit 1 expression and decreased inhibitory metabotropic glutamate receptor 2 expression after FS in male thoracolumbar spinal cord. In addition, the presence of estradiol during stress increased spinal brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) expression independent of sex. In contrast, testosterone blocked the stress-induced increase in BDNF expression in female rats. These data suggest that estradiol facilitates and testosterone attenuates SIVH by modulating spinal excitatory and inhibitory glutamatergic receptor expression.

Perspective: SIVH is more robust in female rats. Estradiol facilitates whereas testosterone dampens the development of SIVH. This could partially explain the greater prevalence of certain chronic visceral pain conditions in women. An increase in spinal BDNF is concomitant with increased stress-induced pain. Pharmaceutical interventions targeting this molecule could provide promising alleviation of SIVH in women.

Keywords: Stress; estradiol; hyperalgesia; testosterone; visceral pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Estradiol / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Hyperalgesia / metabolism*
  • Hyperalgesia / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Testosterone / metabolism*
  • Visceral Pain / metabolism
  • Visceral Pain / physiopathology


  • Testosterone
  • Estradiol