Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Pain in the Butt

A new study on gender differences in the experience and tolerance of pain argues that women both experience more pain and have a lower tolerance for it. The study appears to have used a test where the subjects first immersed their arm in warm water and then in ice-cold water, and the tolerance of pain was measured by the amount of time the subjects kept their arm in the icy water. On average, men kept their arm in longer.

There have been several studies that analyse pain experiences by gender and many of them have had similar results. What the studies can't tell us is why these differences exist (if they do). (Possible explanations include gonadal hormonal differences, endogenous pain modulatory pathways (both inhibitory and excitatory), and psychosocial factors.) What the studies also don't tell us is whether the "experience" of pain can be meaningfully measured when the only measuring device we have are people's own answers. How do I know that my toothache is worse than yours, especially if I use a different language to describe it?

The tolerance threshold is more objectively measured, but even there the social and psychological factors that affect men and women differently could play a role. For example, a man will lose face if he pulls out his arm too soon whereas in most countries a woman will not. It would be interesting to see these studies done in Scandinavian countries, say, where societal gender roles are less differentiated.

The study of pain is in its infancy and I'm willing to bet quite a lot that we are going to see a much more complicated picture in, say, ten years time. But you would not think so from the headline preceding this story in the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman:

Truth Hurts: Women Feel More Pain Than Men

This headline has the following accompanying picture:

"Truth", indeed? When journalists label certain studies as "the truth" and associate the story with a picture about a female athlete failing I get this really strong pain in my butt. Or at least I smell a nice whiff of anti-feminism in the writer. See how all sorts of tendrils are gently tangled around the study?

Especially when the end of the same article contains this quote:

However, Prof Gavin Kenny, head of Glasgow University's department of anaesthesia at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, was surprised at the study's results.

"We did a study on a similar area of pain research approximately 20 years ago, which focused on patients who were having abdominal surgery, which is extremely painful.

"A hundred patients were given buttons that they could press to give themselves addition morphine for more pain relief. We discovered through this study that male patients used 25 per cent more morphine. But this new study's results could be interesting as they raise issues about the psychological aspects that overlay it, and the psychological stresses the sexes experience."

So this study is not "the truth" but one finding the opposite is? Ok.

Similar pains in the butt cropped up in a few other articles on this study. A common one is this:

Women feel pain more than men despite the popular notion that the opposite is true, according to research.
"Until fairly recently it was controversial to suggest that there were any differences between males and females in the perception and experience of pain, but that is no longer the case," said Dr Ed Keogh a psychologist from the Pain Management Unit at the University of Bath.

So which is it? Either we thought that women feel less pain than men or we were not allowed to say that there are any differences at all? And isn't it interesting that the assumption that women felt less pain which we supposedly had never seemed to earn very many column inches dedicated to showing male athletes hurting?

I'm disappointed but not surprised by this coverage.