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A new study ensures that men and women remember pain differently. But what implications does this discovery have?
When they launched their experiment, the experts at McGill University and the University of Toronto (both Canadians) did not expect the results to surprise them so much.
“We set out to do an experiment to observe the hypersensitivity to pain in mice, and found striking differences in stress levels between male and female mice,” explains Jeffrey Mogil, one of the authors of the study.
Thus, they decided to extend the experiment to humans, curious to know if the results would be similar.
“We were impressed when we saw that there seemed to be the same differences between men and women that we had seen in mice,” says Mogil.
This was the experiment
To carry out their research, the scientists needed 41 men and 38 women between 18 and 40 years old .
They were taken to a room where heat was applied to their forearms to produce mild pain. Subsequently, the subjects had to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 100.
Right after this mild pain, subjects were subjected to more intense pain.
They were asked to put on a swollen bracelet to measure blood pressure and to exercise with their arms for 20 minutes, which can be exhausting and even painful.
The next day they brought the subjects back to the room where they had suffered pain the previous day to investigate how they affected the memories of what they had suffered.
And then the surprise came: by applying the mild pain of the first day, the men rated it as more painful than the previous day and as more painful than the women.
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“We believe that men anticipated the pain that was to come and, in their case, the stress of that anticipation caused a greater sensitivity to pain, ” says Mogil.
“There was reason to expect more sensitivity to pain on the second day, but there was no reason to expect it to be specific for men, it was a surprise,” he adds.
The same thing happened in the mice: remembering the mild pain caused by the previous day’s heat and anticipating the more intense pain, the males (and not the females) showed a greater response to the mild pain.
In the case of rodents, the scientists measured the sensitivity to pain according to the speed with which they moved away from the source of heat.
To confirm that the pain increased due to memories from the previous day, the researchers injected a memory-blocking drug into the brains of male mice .
And, indeed, the mice with the blocked memory did not behave like those that did remember the pain.
What applications could I have for chronic pain?
“This is an important finding, and there is increasing evidence to suggest that chronic pain is a problem to the extent that we remember it,” says Loren Martin, one of the authors of the study.
“If remembered pain is a driving force for chronic pain and we understand how pain is remembered, we can help some patients by directly treating the mechanisms behind the memories,” he adds.
Mogil echoes his optimism: “I do not say it very often, but I think it’s appropriate to say that a more in-depth study of this phenomenon could give us ideas that may be useful for treating chronic pain in the future.”