It’s a question that continues to cause friction between the sexes: who has the higher pain threshold? Now one of the most detailed investigations of its kind has reported that it’s men who have the higher threshold, but only at 5 of 12 of the pairs of pressure points investigated (thresholds were the same for both sexes at the other points).
Of course, a huge caveat looms over any research like this which requires participants to report subjectively when they are experiencing pain – for example, given gender expectations, men could just be holding out for longer before they admit to being in pain.
Notwithstanding that possibility, Esmeralda Garcia and colleagues used a device to apply pressure to 12 pairs of pressure points on the bodies of 12 men and 18 women. Nine of these pairs of points were the so-called ‘tender points’ used to diagnose fibromyalgia (see image), on each side of the body. The three remaining pairs of control points were on the palm, the lower leg and forearm.
As the pressure on these points was increased, the participants were asked to indicate when they first experienced pain, as distinct from unpleasantness or discomfort. Testing took place again after 15 minutes and then for a third time a week later.
Men showed greater pain thresholds at all three of the pairs of control points and two of the pairs of tender points. The researchers said the fact the presence of gender differences depended on pressure point location could explain why so much earlier research has produced inconsistent results, with some studies finding gender differences and others not.
There was also a gender difference in how pain sensitivity varied across the testing sessions. Both sexes showed lowered thresholds at the second testing session, but whereas this persisted to the final session among the women, the men’s sensitivity had by this time returned to baseline.
“It would be interesting to see if this pattern persists when the menstrual cycle of women is controlled for, which may have been one of the sources of the differences in the final session,” the researchers said.
Garcia, E., Godoy–Izquierdo, D., Godoy, J.F., Perez, M. & Lopez-Chicheri, I. (2007). Gender differences in pressure pain threshold in a repeated measures assessment. Psychology, Health and Medicine, 12, 567-579.
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