Science: Why Males Bear Pain Better

Society | December 20, 2002, Friday // 00:00

Males are better at tolerating pain than females because of a key difference in how the sexes transmit pain messages, researchers have found. A protein called GIRK2 plays a major role in pain sensation and drug sensitivity in males, but is not as important in females. Removing GIRK2 means the sexes become equal in their ability to withstand pain, experiments on mice showed. Taking account of this difference could in the future lead to far more effective painkillers for women. Previous studies show that men have higher pain thresholds than women. This is despite conventional wisdom suggesting the opposite, since women endure intense pain during childbirth. But even pain medications, including morphine, have been shown to work better in males than they do in females.Neither of the two research groups behind the GIRK2 findings set out to study sex differences. The first group at the University of California wanted to find out how the drugs morphine and clonidine work, while researchers at the University of Texas in Austin, U.S., were looking at ethanol, nicotine, cannabinoids (the active component of marijuana) and other drugs. The results on gender came as a complete surprise.

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