Talkin' trash to the garbage around me.

19 December, 2006

Bring the pain

I don't think anyone who runs in our circle is surprised by this WaPo report stating that men and women experience pain differently. And while the article makes attempts to claim that biological differences between the sexes aren't the only explanation for differing perceptions of pain, the implications drawn for improving pain relief are exclusively in the domain of targeting biological and neurological processes.

I think this runs the risk of missing out on the social causes of these differing perceptions. The medical anthropology and sociology literature makes it clear that symptoms related to the same environmental stimulus or etiological agent are experienced differently across cultures. The logic of the article would seem to dictate that we look for some sort of biological differences between racial groups in order to most effectively treat these afflictions.

My inner sociologist is screaming that the differences in how people perceive pain are primarily social. We learn to experience pain in different ways, and the processes by which we deal with pain become "hard-wired" at a point early in our lives. Take this paragraph from the WaPo article:
When I get a particularly nasty headache, I race for the ibuprofen bottle and down three 200-milligram tablets (a dose long ago approved by my doctor) and get on with whatever I was doing, comforted by the knowledge that I've taken action to dull the pain and that I will feel better soon. When my husband has a headache, he delays doing anything -- including telling me, for whatever comfort that might bring -- and succumbs to the ibuprofen (taking just two tablets) only when the pain is so severe he can't do much else.

Some might say our headache techniques are a manifestation of our quirky personalities -- and there may be some truth in that.

That just screams "socialization!!!" to me. It has nothing to do with individual personalities. It has a lot to do with the fact that our culture sends out the message that girls are sensitive and frail and that boys should just suck it up (or, as Peyton Manning so eloquently puts it, "Rub some dirt on it!").

I'm all for research being done on more effective ways of relieving pain. I'm just concerned that a search for gender-specific pain relief rooted solely biology may not be as effective (and could cause some serious harm i.e. over-medication) if the social causes of differing pain perceptions aren't controlled for in the research.

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