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Is it all about sex? Acupuncture for the treatment of pain from a biological and gender perspective
  1. Iréne Lund, registered physiotherapist1,
  2. Thomas Lundeberg, director2
  1. 1
    Department of Physiology and Pharmacology Karolinska Institutet Stockholm, Sweden
  2. 2
    Foundation of Acupuncture and Alternative Biological Treatment Methods Sabbatsbergs Hospital Stockholm, Sweden
  1. Irene.Lund{at}


Pain is a unique personal experience showing variability where gender and sex related effects might contribute. The mechanisms underlying the differences between women and men are currently unknown but are likely to be complex and involving interactions between biological, sociocultural and psychological aspects.

In women, painful experimental stimuli are generally reported to produce a greater intensity of pain than in men. Clinical pain is often reported with higher severity and frequency, longer duration, and present in a greater number of body regions in women than in men. Women are also more likely to experience a number of painful conditions such as fibromyalgia, temporomandibular dysfunction, migraine, rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. With regard to biological factors, quantitative as well as qualitative differences in the endogenous pain inhibitory systems have been implicated, as well as an influence of gonadal hormones. Psychosocial factors like sex role beliefs, pain coping strategies, and pain related expectancies may also contribute to the differences. Being exposed to repeated painful visceral events (eg menses, labour) during life may contribute to an increased sensitivity to, and greater prevalence of, pain among women.

When assessing the outcome of pharmacological and non-pharmacological therapies in pain treatment, the factors of gender and sex should be taken into account as the response to an intervention may differ. Preferably, treatment recommendations should be based on studies using both women and men as the norm. Due to variability in results, findings from animal studies and experiments in healthy subjects should be interpreted with care.

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