Women's Pain Considered Less Intense, Thanks to Gender Bias

Recent research has found that gender stereotypes and bias play a major role in women's pain not being taken seriously.

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A study published in the Journal of Pain revealed that a patient's gender can cause others to perceive their pain responses differently.

First, 50 participants viewed videos of male and female patients who suffered from shoulder pain performing a series of range of motion exercises using their injured and uninjured shoulders. The study participants were asked to gauge the amount of pain they thought the patients in the videos experienced on a scale from 0-100.  This was then replicated with 200 participants. This time, participants completed the Gender Role Expectation of Pain questionnaire, which measures gender-related stereotypes about pain sensitivity and endurance, and their willingness to report pain.

The research revealed that female patients were perceived to be in less pain than the men who reported and exhibited the same intensity of pain—and both men and women interpreted women's pain to be less intense. Further, the observers viewed the women as more likely to benefit from psychotherapy rather than medication as compared to the men.

The researchers believe that this exposes a significant patient gender bias that could lead to disparities in treatment, and that stereotypes play a role in this bias. "If the stereotype is to think women are more expressive than men, perhaps 'overly' expressive, then the tendency will be to discount women's pain behaviors," said coauther Elizabeth Losin, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social and Cultural Neuroscience lab at the University of Miami. "The flip side of this stereotype is that men are perceived to be stoic, so when a man makes an intense pain facial expression, you think, 'Oh my, he must be dying!' The result of this gender stereotype about pain expression is that each unit of increased pain expression from a man is thought to represent a higher increase in his pain experience than that same increase in pain expression by a woman."

The researchers hope that this study will help us find and address future gender disparities in health care. 

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