Female pain misread more
New research suggests physical pain among women is not taken as seriously as for men.
Researchers have found that gender role expectations about pain endurance and the willingness to report pain are driving the imbalance.
The study found that when a woman complains about pain, the person listening to them is less likely to perceive their pain as serious if that person already believes women are more likely to report pain than men.
“The more willing perceivers believed women are to report pain than men, the less pain they perceived female patients to be in,” the authors explain.
“Importantly, these biases were observed while participants viewed actual patients in genuine clinical pain, and when controlling for pain facial expressiveness and patients' self-reported pain.”
In the study, 50 participants (selected from outside the healthcare sector) were shown a series of video clips, each depicting a real patient's face in chronic pain.
Both male and female viewers rated the pain of female patients as lower.
On a scale of 0 to 100, male patients were rated more than two points higher, on average, than their female counterparts.
A second experiment was then carried out with 197 participants – three of which were healthcare workers.
More than half of this group had at least one chronic or acute pain condition of their own, but even so, the results of the second experiment largely matched the first. Female patients were again perceived as being in less pain overall.
Additionally, participants in the second study were asked to imagine themselves as a doctor for the patient in pain, and gave an indication of which treatment and dosage they might recommend. The dosages and prescriptions were presented on a scale of 0 to 100, as most people in the study did not have a healthcare background.
When asked to choose between medicine and therapy for their patients, female patients were 4 percent more likely than male patients to be prescribed psychotherapy.
This was all followed by a questionnaire that ranked gender bias on the issue of pain.
It showed that those participants who believed women were more likely to report pain than men estimated female patients were in less pain than male patients, and prescribed female patients less medication.
Those who thought men could endure more pain (and also were less willing to report it) estimated pain in male patients was higher and prescribed this group more pain medicine.
It appears that the average observer uses assumptions about gender to explain the symptoms of pain they see instead of taking the suffering at face value.
“Together, these findings suggest that women's pain is underestimated compared to men's and perceived to benefit more [from] psychotherapy, and that perceivers' pain-related stereotypes may be a source of these pain estimation and treatment biases,” the authors conclude.