We know that men dont suffer menstrual pain, but thats not the only fun theyre missing. “Research is uncovering very dramatic differences in how the genders experience pain,” says Mark Allen Young, a professor at New York College of Podiatric Medicine and author of Women and Pain: Why It Hurts and What You Can Do.
It all starts with hormones. There is no getting around how profoundly hormones like estrogen and testosterone affect the central nervous system, which is responsible for perceiving and transmitting the sensation of pain.
According to experts, this is one reason why conditions such as osteoarthritis, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome strike women at much higher rates than men.
Our physical differences really matter, too. “Weve only recently begun to grasp that womens body architecture is completely different from mens,” Young says. Because women walk differently, for instance, they put pressure on joints, muscles, and bones in very different ways than men do. “Starting with the knees and hips and working up to the shoulders, spine, and neck, how a person walks can have a huge impact on how pain develops later in life,” Young says. Just last year, one medical-implant maker finally recognized this fact by creating a knee implant just for women.
Women are also more prone to conditions involving the immune system, says Deborah Metzger, MD, an OB-GYN and specialist in integrative pain management in Los Altos, California. Scientists have long known that women have stronger immune systems than men, she says. That strength can backfire, though, leading women to suffer from far more autoimmune disordersin which the immune system attacks itselfand the host of mysterious diseases thought to sometimes result from an overreactive immune system, such as celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and many types of pelvic pain.
“Women tend to have hyperalert immune systems, which is good,” Metzger says. “But once the immune system gets stirred up, it can turn into a feeding frenzy.” The fired-up immune activity produces inflammatory chemicals that fuel all types of muscle and joint pain; it can also activate nerves in vulnerable spots like the lower back (sciatica), the head (migraines), and the pelvis (endometriosis and pelvic pain).
By Melanie Haiken