Myth of the Female Pain Threshold?

Somebody told me that it was a medical fact that women have a higher pain threshold than men. What is the definition of ‘pain threshold’? Is there any evidence to support this assertion? We are all aware of the pain of childbirth and the analogy that it is equivalent to squeezing an orange through the size of the male urethra (or such like). How does this compare to, for example, the pain experienced by people with gunshot wounds to the stomach?

All I know is that I’ve got the lowest threshold of pain imaginable. I can’t handle shots.

An explanation and a bit of refutation.

A statement that it is true.

A bit of both.

Having done this three times in the last week I guess I now officially qualify as a SDMB old geezer.

Of particular interest is the definition of ‘pain thrshold’:
"Taken literally, the threshold of pain would be the minimum amount of stimulus that could be sensed. You’re really asking who would feel an itch first, given a minor stimulus. "

That is correct. This is a very common mistake. The correct term is “pain tolerance”. Please use this term instead of pain threshold.

Reading the links don’t ask provided (the middle one was broken for me) I am left with some questions.

In my experience the myth of female pain tolerance stems from women coping with a monthly menstrual cycle that can be uncomfortable and that women have babies and experience a lot of pain during birth. I have been told frequently by female aquaintences that men would blubber and moan incessantly if we had to experience what women regularly did. The fact that women blubber and moan during these painful periods is conveniently forgotten.

To my mind it is just one of those things you have to cope with. If men were subjected to menstrual cycles and childbirth I imagine they’d get through it as well as women do (with the bitching and moaning).

All of that said my experience has also taught me that women have a lower pain tolerance than men. It may be anecdotal but I see a lot more crying and complaining from the women I know then I do from the men when they suffer various mishaps. However (and here are my questions) I wonder how much of this has to do with sociology rather than biology? That’s to say do both women and men feel pain equivalently but men are socialized to ‘tough it out and be a man’ where women are socialized to seek comfort?

The articles linked above didn’t answer that for me. That women remove their hand from a painful situation quicker then men doesn’t tell me that women necessarily have a lower pain tolerance then men. It could mean that women are smart enough to get their hand out of a painful situation sooner where men will leave it in the interests of some machismo.

This thread seems to have been usurped by the older thread I linked to for some reason, so I’ll give it a bump.

To address Whack-a-Mole’s comments. The answer is basically that pain is a subjective experience so we can’t really know. WHat we do know is tht males have thicker skin than females (no literally, a few mm thicker) and that would tend to mediate some pain. We also know that male neurons associated with pain tend to have been set to a higher threshold, but it’s been proven that this can be developed by constant ‘abuse’, so maybe males have higher physiological responses because they are expected to tolerate pain which causes them to do so, and so reset their neurons, which causes them to endure more pain and so forth.

My WAG is that these two factors will make the average man more pain tolerant tahn the average woman, which is why the internal organ pain of childbirth/menstruation is always brought up. You can’t really acclimate to that. However one could also argue that the pain of being hit in the goolies is worse than the pain of childbirth because a good hit will acuse so much pain that you literally can’t function and that men don’t usually pass out from it, but women would. How do you prove any of these statements? Pain is pain. I feel it my way, you feel it yours. I’ve broken bones before and wanted to keep playing because they weren’t very painful. Does that give me a high pain threshold? No way, I’m a wuss when it comes to pain, I just don’t feel pain from certain things as strongly as some people.

It really is hard to measure. Even if women are more vocal about pain, that indicates only that it is more socially acceptable for women to express discomfort more than men.

And, I think there is bound to be a lot of personal variation. I know that I react to pain a lot differently than other women I know. I know men that scream and moan about paper cuts. I know women that deal with broken bones without a tear. It varies a lot.

As far as menstrual cramps go…I have experiences a lot of pain in my life. The same kind of pain that most everyone knows…broken bones, toothaches, fingers slammed in doors, cuts, stings and stomped toes. The kind of pain that both women and men can relate to. Nothing compares to my cramps. I don’t think that I have ever experienced another kind of pain that knocks me breathless. Three hours of pain so intense that you can’t even read because it keeps making your eyes blur. It is indecribable.

I know my case is somewhat more extreme than most. It is something that all the women in my family have had to deal with (insert childhood memories of mom curled up on the floor in pain and Grandma’s recollections of how Great-Grandpa would pick her up from school when the pain got too bad, here) and I’ve recently learned that it is due to an uptilting cervix (ah…the thing you can learn about yourself…I also have a freckle in the back of my eyeball). The pain is also extremely controllable with birth control pills.

The point is, however, that women feel the same gamut of pain that men do, espcially as more and more women participate in sports and other ways to get mangled. When a woman says that childbirth and menstrual cramps hurt more than any other pain they know, those women mean it. It is pretty damn painful.

I am of the opinion that this question is not merely difficult to answer, but actually meaningless (not to mention divisive).

If I am arguing for the superiority of sex A, I need to claim two things

  1. that the pain experienced by sex A is no less acute than that experienced by sex B
  2. that sex A tolerates the pain with more forbearance than would sex B.

However, if I set up a toe-stomping machine to crunch the toes of a large number of people of both sexes, and I discover that sex A actually makes less fuss than sex B when their toes are crunched, I still have no way of knowing whether this is due to less sensitivity or greater forbearance. Two unknowns.

It might be divisive but it is not necessarily meaningless.

I for one can consider military combat service as a place where pain tolerance is a desirable trait. Under adverse conditions a soldier needs to rely on fellow soldiers. If one plops down or stops functioning due to pain that soldier becomes a liability to the rest of the squad. The longer a soldier can tough it out the better off everyone is for it. I think this is part of what they are after in hell-week for SEAL training…they weed out all but the toughest mofo’s they can find.

Certainly pain is subjective. While there is a physical aspect to it I think more or even most of it is mental. I always beat my friends in breath holding competitions but I’m convinced it was due more to my ability to tough out the discomfort of imminent suffocation than it was to a better, more efficient body.

That women gripe more about pain than men is common experience but as even sven mentioned that just means it is more socially acceptable for women to do so. The real measure, to me, would be when someone stops functioning ‘normally’ due to pain. That would be the test of your pain tolerance…not the moment you say ‘ouch’ or remove your hand from a pain box because there is no reason not to.

NOTE: even sven,
I don’t think you were taking me to task over the pain some women feel during their menstrual cycles but after re-reading my post I may have minimized that aspect of what women go through. I have personal experience with some of the women in my life who suffer truly debilitating pain (i.e. curled in a fetal ball and screaming) during their cycle…it’s scary and sad. One of the women finally had a full-hysterectomy to solve the problem. I apologize if I was flip in my earlier post about this aspect of pain.

Oh yeah? Ever been kicked in the nuts?


I’ll grant getting kicked in the nads is a truly awful experience and may be worse than any cramps. That said, most men don’t get to count on getting kicked in the groin once a month and when they do get kicked in the groin they don’t have several days of continuous pain to look forward to (unless they got really annihilated down there in which case all bets are off).

For my money any pain is bad but chronic, unrelenting pain takes the cake for the worst. I’ve been popped in the balls maybe half-a-dozen times in my life and as bad as it was I wouldn’t trade it for monthly cramps.

I’ve heard on sports shows that professional football players have a higher pain tolerance. It is argued that they have to play with pain all the time and thus someone without that tolerance would not be able to play pro ball.

After reading this thread I wonder if it isn’t more in their heads than in their nervous system.

Sorry for the hi-jack.

ok, as a former medical vampire, i can tell you from personal experience that men make a MUCH bigger deal out of getting poked with a needle than women. in the 5 years that i performed that invaluable medical service, i had 4 men pass out on me. no women. and men were much more likely to complain about having it done, to flinch and/or try to pull away, to grunt, hiss, whimper or make some other wimpy noise and to complain about how awful it was afterwards. for what it’s worth, i specialized in drawing blood from infants and children, and my experience suggests to me that most 3 year olds have a higher pain tolerance than most 18-65 year old males. i’d much rather draw blood from a 5 year old girl than from a 17 year old boy. the 5 year olds don’t cry as much.

Sorry that I have nothing more intelligent to say, but I regret reading that sentance.

(BTW, I take pain well. Not much is enough to be a problem or anything. Shots are fine. I barely feel anything. I am male.) Being kicked in the nuts ain’t too bad. Really - its not. Breaking my knee, spraining my ankle, slamming into asphalt w/rocks and having a bike fall on me? No problem! The most painful memory I can think of right now was the time I fell off my bike. Onto another bike. And my bike fell on me. Oh, did that hurt. Ouch. That was when I was younger though - maybe I’m getting better as I get older?

Women accept pain from others more readily. In my old psych book there was an experiment where the tester bent back the finger of the subject and recorded their reaction. The women smiled and gave the tester a confused look. The men yelled out in pain and were quite vocal about it usually.

Which either proves that women could handle the pain better, or were more flexible in their fingers, or perhaps something else entirely.

*Originally posted by zzt *

Except… umm… Okay, I know that this isn’t the point, but you have to remember that the women’s cervical opening stretches/dialates in preperation. If you tried to put a child through an undialated one, then it would compare to the orange. ::Shudders:: :eek:

Returning to a thread that I started some time ago.

I think that I have found the answer.

I was at a Biotech conference last week in SF. One of the presentations was for a company that specialises in pain reduction treatments.

He told an interesting fact. If you inject a male rat with oestrogen, its tolerance goes down and if you inject a female rat with testosterone, its tolerance goes up. It is apparently well known in the medical profession that female pain tolerance is considerably lower.

One of the ways he highlighted this was by showing the figures for the sales generated for all pain treatments from simple back pain and tooth ache to cancer related pain. Women outweight men by a ratio of approximately two to one.


Of course, this totally ignores that male and female bodies process pain medications differently. There is actually a painkiller that works quite well for women but is totally useless for men. So part of what your seeing is different biochemistries, not different pain tolerances.