Some research has hinted that women are more sensitive to pain than men are, but a new study suggests that women actually get over their discomfort more quickly.
Researchers found that when they exposed 32 adults to a moderately painful stimulus — a heat-producing probe placed on the skin — women were initially more sensitive to the pain than men.
But after the first 20 seconds, women reported a decline in both the intensity of the pain and their "annoyance" with it — until they were actually less bothered than men. Men, in contrast, showed no similar adaptation.
The sex disparity was also seen when the study participants were exposed to the heat a second and third time — with women feeling less pain and annoyance than their male counterparts throughout.
The results, reported in the journal Pain, seem to throw a wrench into past findings suggesting that women generally have less tolerance for pain. A key limitation of those studies was that they gauged people's initial reactions to a quickly removed pain stimulus.
In contrast, participants in the current study withstood the heat for 30-second intervals. And women, it turned out, adapted to the situation more readily than men did.
"This study tells us that to generally say women are more pain-sensitive is incorrect," lead researcher Javeria A. Hashmi, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto in Canada, noted in an interview with Reuters Health.
Exactly why women and men differed in their ability to adapt is unclear, Hashmi said.
She noted, for instance, that there may be sex differences in the brain's inhibition of pain signals, as well as in the psychological aspects of pain perception. Those questions, Hashmi said, require further study.
Another big question, according to the researcher, is whether sex differences in pain adaptation play any role in women's higher risk of chronic-pain conditions like fibromyalgia.
That possibility may seem paradoxical. However, Hashmi explained, if women have some unique physiological mechanism that helps them adapt to pain, it's possible that damage to this system could make some women especially vulnerable to chronic pain.
"These findings open up a lot of new hypotheses for future studies," Hashmi said.