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You don’t feel my pain

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The age-old debate about who feels greater pain, men or women, may have finally be resolved.

And for angst-ridden males who might believe those who carry the Y chromosome feel pain more acutely, and put up with it more stoically, the news is not good.

According to neuroscientist Dr Mark Hutchison, a researcher at the University of Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences, the evidence shows that it is women, not men, who experience the greater pain.

Dr Hutchison said research had shown that glial cells, which act as the brain’s immune cells, play a role in making the pain thresholds of men and women different.

“There are fundamental differences in the experience of pain between men and women,” Dr Hutchison said. “These studies show that women’s experience of pain is more severe, and the pain is harder to treat.”  

In his research, Dr Hutchinson has looked closely at why acute pain turns into chronic pain that can last for up to six months, and why such chronic pain is more prevalent and longer-lasting in women than in men.

Dr Mark Hutchinson said differences in the structure of female and male brains did not explain why women felt a higher rate of pain.  

“There is a difference in sensitivity, we know that. But rather than just sensitivity to the drug used in females, there are multiple different pain systems,” he said.

Dr Hutchison said the discovery raised the question of whether gender-specific painkillers needed to be developed.

He said it was already evident that some drugs for inflammatory bowel disease worked only on women and not on men.

“We are hoping our research will lead to the development of more sex-targeted drugs being developed,” Dr Hutchinson said.

Sanja Novakovic