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Sex differences in experimental measures of pain sensitivity and endogenous pain inhibition

Authors Bulls H, Freeman E, Anderson A, Robbins M, Ness T, Goodin B

Received 16 March 2015

Accepted for publication 5 May 2015

Published 29 June 2015 Volume 2015:8 Pages 311—320


Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single anonymous peer review

Peer reviewer comments 3

Editor who approved publication: Dr Michael E Schatman

Hailey W Bulls,1 Emily L Freeman,1 Austen JB Anderson,2 Meredith T Robbins,3 Timothy J Ness,3 Burel R Goodin1,3
1Department of Psychology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA; 2Department of Biology, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, USA; 3Department of Anesthesiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA

Abstract: It has been suggested that increased pain sensitivity and disruption of endogenous pain inhibitory processes may account, at least in part, for the greater prevalence and severity of chronic pain in women compared to men. However, previous studies addressing this topic have produced mixed findings. This study examined sex differences in pain sensitivity and inhibition using quantitative sensory testing (QST), while also considering the influence of other important factors such as depressive symptoms and sleep quality. Healthy men (n=24) and women (n=24) each completed a QST battery. This battery included an ischemic pain task (IPT) that used a submaximal effort tourniquet procedure as well as a conditioned pain modulation (CPM) procedure for the assessment of endogenous pain inhibition. Prior to QST, participants completed the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. Analyses revealed significant sex differences for the ischemic pain task and the conditioned pain modulation procedure, such that women tolerated the ischemic pain for a shorter amount of time and demonstrated less pain inhibition compared with men. This remained true even when accounting for sex differences in depressive symptoms and sleep quality. The results of this study suggest that women may be more pain sensitive and possess less-efficient endogenous pain inhibitory capacity compared with men. Whether interventions that decrease pain sensitivity and enhance pain inhibition in women ultimately improve their clinical pain outcomes is an area of research that deserves additional attention in the future.

Keywords: sex differences, pain sensitivity, inhibition, depressive symptoms, sleep

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