Sex differences in physical symptoms: the contribution of symptom perception theory

Soc Sci Med. 1997 Jul;45(2):231-46. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(96)00340-1.


Health surveys, studies on physical symptom reporting, and medical registration of physical complaints find consistent sex differences in symptom reporting, with women having the higher rates. By and large, this female excess of physical symptoms is independent from the symptom measure, response format and time frame used, and the population under study. As most studies concern healthy individuals, the sex difference can not simply be attributed to a greater physical morbidity in women. In this paper we propose a number of explanations for this phenomenon, based on a biopsychosocial perspective on symptom perception. We discuss a symptom perception model that brings together factors and processes from the extant literature which are thought to affect symptom reporting, such as somatic information, selection of information through attention and distraction, attribution of somatic sensations, and the personality factors somatisation and negative affectivity. Finally, we discuss the explanations for sex differences in physical symptoms that arise from the model.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Depression / diagnosis
  • Depression / psychology
  • Female
  • Gender Identity*
  • Health Status Indicators*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sick Role*
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology