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Women aren't taken as seriously as men when describing their pain, study finds

Researchers are highlighting long-standing gender disparities in health care

Photo (c) PeopleImages - Getty Images
Several studies have highlighted the differences that men and women experience when seeking health care for the same ailment. Recently, researchers from the University of Miami looked specifically at how pain is analyzed and treated between the genders. 

According to their findings, bystanders were more likely to believe that men needed serious medical treatment when men and women described the same level of pain intensity. The researchers also found that women were often dismissed and were recommended to receive mental health treatments. 

“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 researcher Elizabeth Losin. “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.” 

Highlighting the gender disparities in pain expression

The researchers conducted two studies to analyze how consumers perceive men’s and women’s expressions of pain. Both studies were based on videos taken of men and women doing strength exercises after shoulder surgery. The patients in the videos ranked their own pain, and the researchers utilized the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to record objective pain scores based on the patients’ facial expressions. 

At the end of both experiments, the participants determined how much physical pain they believed the patients to be in. The second study had participants dive even deeper and report on what kind of mental health services and medications they’d recommend for the patients. 

In both experiments, participants were more likely to believe that male participants’ pain was more severe than female participants’ pain, despite identical expressions of pain intensity. The researchers believe gender stereotypes played into these findings a great deal. Interestingly, the gender of the participants making the judgment call on the patients in pain didn’t yield different results; both male and female participants took men’s pain reports more seriously than women’s. 

“There’s a pretty wide literature showing demographic differences in pain report, the prevalence of critical pain conditions, and then also a demographic difference in pain treatments,” Losin said. “These differences manifest as disparities because it seems that some people are getting undertreated for their pain based on their demographics.

“I think one critical piece of information that could be conveyed in medical curricula is that people, even those with medical training in other studies, have been found to have consistent demographic biases in how they assess the pain of male and female patients and that these biases impact treatment decisions. Critically, our results demonstrate that these gender biases are not necessarily accurate. Women are not necessarily more expressive than men, and thus their pain expression should not be discounted.” 

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