In the world of pain, women hold the ultimate trump card: childbirth. Stereotypically, men might seem better equipped to grin and bear a ghastly range of injuries, but they can never experience what many consider to be the height of human agony that takes place in hospital delivery rooms.
A pregnant woman's body even undergoes certain changes in the third trimester to prepare it for labor pains. Especially during the last 18 days of pregnancy, a soon-to-be-mother's pain threshold elevates as pain-mitigating opioid receptors go on red alert and levels of pain-reducing hormones spike [source: Toomey]. In fact, even after the baby is born, a mother will continue to demonstrate a higher pain tolerance than women who haven't had children, according to a 1992 study from the University of Western Ontario [source: Hapidou and DeCatanzaro].
But while women can endure the excruciating pain of childbirth, studies show that they're more sensitive to general pain than men [source: Society for Neuroscience]. In fact, over a lifetime, women experience more pain than men, and of all cohorts, white women older than 45 years report the most pain [source: Kritz].
To get a sense of how wide this painful gender gap is, consider the prevalence rates of certain chronic conditions:
- Women report 40 percent more osteoporosis pain than men.
- One in five women suffers from migraine headaches, compared to one in 17 men.
- Nine times more women than men are affected by fibromyalgia.
[source: National Institutes of Health]
Of course, sorting out the gender disparities of pain responses doesn't boil down to women being the weaker sex. Rather, male and female bodies don't process pain the same way. If a man and a woman each place their hands on a hot stove, different parts of their brains will activate. In 2003, researchers at UCLA discovered that the cognitive, or analytic, region of the male brain lights up, while the female limbic system, the brain's emotional headquarters, springs into action [source: University of California - Los Angeles].
So does that emotionally charged limbic response mean that women are merely making a louder fuss than men over the same amount of pain? Not quite.