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The Pain Gap

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The Pain Gap

After decades of assuming that pain works the same way in all sexes, scientists are finding that different biological pathways can produce an ‘ouch!’.


5 min read
4 take-aways
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Scientists are discovering that pain travels along different biological pathways depending on a person’s biological sex.

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  • Scientific
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Studies in mice have shown that different pain pathways are involved in females and males. This could offer hope for more effective treatment of pain in humans. Award-winning science writer Amber Dance explains how gender is a determining factor in the pain response of rodents, as well as humans. More research is needed, but understanding these differences shows promise for the future of pain control and drug treatment in general. The future may find drugs targeted specifically to a person’s gender, age and hormone levels.


Biological sex is an important variable in the pain response.

Starting in 2016, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) required grant applicants to justify their choice of the sex of the animals they used in research. Pain research is one of the first areas to show the benefits of these guidelines. In male mice, hypersensitivity to pain results from very different pathways than in female mice.

Pain can occur in different ways and may involve diverse chemical pathways.

In male mice, the pain response depends on microglia, specific immune cells in the spinal cord. T cells appear to influence pain in female mice. Male mice lacking testosterone seem to switch to the female pain pathway. Female mice that are missing T cells or that are pregnant, seem to switch to the male pain pathway.

The hormone 0estrogen can influence the perception of pain, depending on the hormone...

About the Author

Amber Dance is an award-winning freelance science writer based in Los Angeles, California.

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