New study proves men and women experience pain differently

By Jurassic JennJun 23, 2024 21:03 PMScience
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Pain in men and women
Pain in men and women. Source: healthnews.com

Differences in pain perception between men and women have long been observed, but the underlying reasons have remained unclear. However, recent research suggests that variances in male and female nerve cells may play a role in these disparities. This is reported by SSP.

According to a study published in Brain on June 3, pain-sensing nerve cells from male and female animal tissues reacted differently to the same sensitizing substances. This finding hints at a cellular level distinction in pain production between the sexes.

Researchers believe that these findings could potentially lead to the development of gender-specific pain treatments. By understanding the variations at the cellular level, it may be possible to create drugs targeted for male or female patients. Katherine Martucci, a neuroscientist specializing in chronic pain at Duke University School of Medicine, expressed agreement, stating that the observed differences in cells provide unequivocal evidence.

Notably, certain types of chronic and acute pain exhibit gender imbalance without a clear explanation. Many chronic pain conditions, affecting approximately 50 million adults in the United States, are more prevalent in women. Acute conditions also demonstrate similar discrepancies.

Highlighted by these disparities, a team of researchers led by Frank Porreca from the University of Arizona Health Sciences delved into studying nociceptors, nerve cells that act akin to alarm sensors in the body. These pain sensors, found in various locations including skin and organs, sense potential threats and transmit signals to the brain, subsequently translating them into pain perception. In some situations, these nerve cells can become overly sensitive, even causing mild stimuli such as the touch of a shirt on sunburned skin to be interpreted as pain.

The researchers conducted their investigation utilizing tissue samples from mice, monkeys, and humans. Their focus centered on two substances known to heighten sensitivity to pain: prolactin, a hormone, and orexin B, a neurotransmitter. The presence of these substances caused nerve cells from females to become more active, while nerve cells from males responded similarly to orexin B.

This data suggests that distinctions between men and women are apparent even at the initial stage of the pain pathway. Harrison Stratton, coauthor of the study and a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, supports this conclusion.

If pain mechanisms fundamentally differ between genders, it opens the possibility for tailored pain medications based on sex-specific factors. Blocking sensitivity to prolactin in females and orexin B in males could be potential treatment approaches. As both substances have been thoroughly studied for their involvement in various bodily functions such as lactation and sleep, repurposing existing medications could be feasible. Furthermore, a prolactin-blocking antibody has already been discovered by Porreca and colleagues, holding promise for treating diverse conditions ranging from female pain to infertility.

While findings from mouse studies usually do not seamlessly translate to humans, Martucci emphasizes the similarity in the particular pain pathway tested across mice, monkeys, and humans. Consequently, future drugs targeting prolactin and orexin B could prove effective in pain management following further research and testing.

However, Richard Miller, a pharmacologist from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, cautions that pain often results from a combination of various factors. Therefore, it remains questionable whether prolactin and orexin B are uniquely significant in comparison to other substances.

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