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Women Hurt More, Cope With It Better, Study Finds

April 08, 1998| From Associated Press

BETHESDA, Md. — Women are more sensitive to pain than men, new research on arthritis sufferers suggests. But women are better able to cope with it, recover more quickly and do not let pain control their lives.

In studies presented Tuesday at a National Institutes of Health conference, researchers said the superior ability of women to deal with pain gives them a strength that suffer-in-silence men lack. The differences may all be based on sex hormones, some experts suggest.

A study of men and women suffering from arthritis, a common disorder of aging that affects both genders, found that women tend to have a more keen sense of pain than men, but that men are more likely to let the discomfort sour their mood.

"Women reported 40% more pain than men, but women coped better with it," said Dr. Francis Keefe of Ohio University. He is the author of a study of pain in 99 women and 48 men suffering from arthritis.

Women, said Keefe, tend to regard pain as a call to action and take measures to overcome the discomfort or to relieve it through what he called "emotional coping." This coping included distracting activities, venting of emotions, seeking support of others and even finding comfort in prayer.

Men use fewer such coping skills and, in the long run, suffer more.

A woman's more keen perception and vulnerability to pain, in the long run, "gives them greater strength," said Dr. Karen Berkley, a pain researcher at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Women are more likely to prepare for the pain they know is coming from childbirth or surgery, and seek solutions in advance, Berkley said. They learn to cope with such techniques as relaxation or distraction or by seeking expert help.

Men, however, tend to wait and get ambushed by pain and then cope with it poorly.

These gender differences disappear, she said, when a serious, painful disease, such as cancer, takes hold.

Part of a person's perception and response to pain is learned in childhood, said Dr. Patricia McGrath of the Child Health Research Institute in London, Canada.

"Children look to their parents for how to respond to bumps and scrapes," said McGrath. "The more a child is taught to not show pain, the less likely they are to show it."

An experiment in mice suggests that estrogen, a female hormone, and testosterone, a male hormone, cause a different perception of pain, reports Dr. William Isenberg of UC San Francisco.

He said tests show male mice have a higher tolerance for pain than female mice. But when females are injected with testosterone, they tend to react to pain in the same way as males. Conversely, male mice injected with estrogen become feminine in their pain response.

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