Research shows boys and girls respond differently to pain

HALIFAX – Next time your child mentions he or she is in pain, you may want to take notice: new research out of the IWK shows girls experience pain more significantly and intensely than boys.

In a article recently published in Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, Katelynn Boerner, a PhD student in clinical psychology at Dalhousie University and lead author of the article, explains how girls older than 12 report experiencing more pain than boys while doing a cold pressor test.

In the cold pressor test, a person submerges his or her hand into water that is about 10C and thenhas to describe the level of discomfort on a pain scale.

Kids point to their level of pain on the pain scale. Julia Wong/Global News

Carson Devitt, 9, participated in the study. He described the test as being out on a cool winter’s day.

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“It felt like my fingers were ice and they’re freezing,” he said.

Mother Jennifer sat with Carson while he did the experiment.

“Of course you don’t like to see your child in pain, but I was able to talk him through it,” she said. “He is pretty tolerant about pain.”

Boerner said researchers did not know what to expect when they began their experiment because most pain research is conducted in adults but there were some significant findings.

“In the cold water task, we found girls actually experience it as being more painful than boys,” Boerner said. “It’s not that boys are not finding it painful and girls are, but it’s just the intensity of that pain is quite different.”

She said the pain discrepancy when it comes to the cold only seems to happen in girls who are 12 or older.

“We only found this in adolescence and not in children. It seems there’s something happening around the time of puberty that makes the pain experience different,” Boerner said.

Dr. Christine Chambers said researchers “don’t really understand” the differences in the responses for each sex, but that hormonal factors may play a role.

Chambers oversaw the sex difference study and is a professor of pediatrics and psychology at Dalhousie University, in addition to being a researcher at the Centre fo Pediatric Pain Research at the IWK Health Centre.

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She said more research needs to be done to better understand why there is a difference.

“It could be that pain is processed differently in women’s brains rather than men’s brains. If that’s the case, it could mean there are different types of pain management strategies or medications that might work differently for men than for women,” she said.

Chambers added that more research in pediatric pain is critical, as two-thirds of children with chronic pain grow up to be adults with chronic pain. She also said one in five children experience chronic pain, such as headaches or stomach aches.

“If we can do a better job of assessing and managing pain in childhood, we hopefully could prevent the burden of disability later in life,” she said.