His vs. Her Pain

Congrats, ladies — your coping skills are stellar.

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It's no secret that women are tough (you try pushing out a whole person, buddy), but studies suggest we might be more sensitive than men. And the part that really hurts? Doctors may not take our complaints seriously.

Who Deals with Pain Better?

His threshold is higher. Even when they have the same ailments as women, guys report their pain levels to be about 20 percent lower, according to a 2012 study. That's not just macho talk; scientists think sex hormones play a part. Some women with chronic pain say their symptoms get worse during certain phases of their menstrual cycles. And in a 2014 study, mice had a greater threshold after being given moderate to high doses of testosterone, though more research on this is needed.

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She gets more than her share. Women throw on their superhero capes in the delivery room — our pain threshold increases during childbirth. But that protective effect is temporary, which stinks, because our pangs can pile up: We're more likely to suffer from persistent, uncomfortable conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and osteoarthritis. Then there's the ladies-only club that includes cramps and endometriosis. All told, researchers say, we'll experience more pain in our lifetime than men will.

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Who Prepares for Pain Better?

Guys freak out more about it. When they're clued in that pain is coming, they may be at a loss as to what to do about it, says Roger Fillingim, PhD, director of the University of Florida's Pain Research and Intervention Center of Excellence. Men who know they're in for a wallop have greater activity in the part of the brain that experiences fear, which could make twinges worse: A guy may be more likely to report intense pain during, say, his root canal if he's anxious about it.

Women start coping before they feel a thing. When we think about a potentially ouch-y experience, we show more activity in the part of the brain that has to do with planning, which can help us prepare to deal with it. Women often use a broader repertoire of approaches for managing the pain, such as seeking social support, talking themselves through it, and taking steps to avoid situations that could add to their discomfort, Fillingim says.

Who's More Vocal About Pain?

His doctor doesn't think he'll speak up. Lots of guys come down with a bad case of John Wayne – it is on the examining table, playing it strong and silent. (And that's if they go to the doc — they're 24 percent less likely than we are to have seen an MD in the past year.) So when a man does admit to feeling pain, medical pros may see the problem as urgent and spend more time trying to treat it, says Jeffrey Mogil, PhD, head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University.

Her doctor thinks she's exaggerating. Even though we're more likely to pipe up about pain, doctors often undertreat our aches. In a study of ER patients with abdominal pain, women were up to 25 percent less likely to be given prescription painkillers and waited some 15 minutes longer for the drugs. Why? Hello, sexism: Some docs think we're being drama queens; others assume we can handle discomfort better because we tolerate childbirth, studies have found. Refuse to be ignored!

This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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