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Remembering Pain Makes It Worse. Now, Guess Who Remembers It Best

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Men and woman are so different that John Gray became a rock star among self-help authors when he wrote a book with the catchy title, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” It resonated with those of us from both persuasions.

In the musical, My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins wants to know “Why Can't A Woman Be More Like a Man?” I can promise you that some women might reverse that question. But the French just wisely shrug their shoulders and say, “Viva la difference.” I can agree to that.

Men and women walk differently, talk differently, and now science has established that they tend to remember pain differently, too.

This applies, by the way, not only to male humans but male mice as well.

It matters because research has established that the memory of earlier pain plays a role in chronic pain. Male mice and humans clearly remember painful experiences very clearly. Take them back to the location where it happened and they will react with signs of stress and discomfort.

The researchers at McGill University and University of Toronto Mississauga are experts on pain, but this came as a surprise to them. At first, they noticed the difference between male and female mice, which they had not expected. When they tested humans, they found the same division.

One of the researchers opined that “because it is well known that women are both more sensitive to pain than men and that they are also generally more stressed out," they were gobsmacked by the results.

Naturally, the scientist who offered that opinion was a man. Would Human Resources please ask him to stop by for some sensitivity training?

In humans, the test consisted of strapping patients into a blood pressure cuff and blowing it up to be very tight. With the cuff in place, they were then asked to exercise their arms for 20 minutes and rate the pain.

That hurt so much that only 7 of the 80 people in the test rated the pain at lower than 50 on a 100-point scale.

Men and women both felt the pain acutely, the difference came the next day. Researchers either took the subjects back to the same room the next day or to a different one. When they returned to the same room, men rated the pain even worse the next day. That did not happen to men who were sent to a different room or to women in the test group. 

It suggests that the memory of pain may make chronic pain worse, especially for men.

At this point, you may be connecting some obvious dots. It is commonly said that women tend to forget the pain of childbirth. Some believe there might be an evolutionary reason for this difference in pain perception.

Alas, scientists have looked at that question before and consider it something of a myth.

Karolinska Institute studies found that about half of women do forget the level of pain, but only when conditions are right. It was only the women who felt they had a caring staff and good support and who viewed their experience as positive at the time of giving birth who were more likely to forget the pain over the years.

So, despite gender differences, we humans all don't like to be hurt once, and we really, really hurt when old pains take another jab. The difference between us may be that women tend to give more weight to the emotional elements and men to the physical.

Someone should test that. It could be one of those Mars-Venus things.


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