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Boys shrug off pain, girls 'catastrophize': York U study

Boys shrug off pain, girls 'catastrophize': York U study

Teenage boys who experience “persistent” pain aren’t all that fazed by it – at least not compared to girls – a York University study finds. 

The study, conducted at the Ontario Science Centre, looked at more than 1,000 children and adolescents from ages eight to 18. While boys and girls reported the same frequency of persistent pain – lasting three months or more – teenage girls experienced more anxiety and tended to catastrophize over pain to a greater degree than their male peers.  

“Boys who experience pain may feel less comfortable expressing their feelings because they are deemed socially inappropriate – or it may be that boys simply experience less anxiety in relation to pain,” says study lead author Samantha Fuss (MA ’10), a PhD student in psychology at York. “Even teenage girls who haven’t experienced persistent pain showed significantly higher levels of pain anxiety than boys their age.”   

Overall, 27 per cent of participants reported experiencing persistent pain. The study is published in the latest issue of the journal Pain Research & Management.

Study co-author Joel Katz, a York psychology professor and Canada Research Chair in Health Psychology, says more research is needed to understand the psychological factors relating to pain in youth. 

Left: Joel Katz

“Persistent pain in children and teenagers isn’t a rare occurrence. There are gaps in our understanding of the time course of pain and the developmental trajectories,” Katz says. “For example, how does the presence of pain in these life stages relate to pain in adulthood?”

Researchers looked at psychological variables including anxiety, anxiety sensitivity and pain catastrophizing – a tendency to worry about pain and feel helpless in the face of it.

Boys 12 to 18 years of age were significantly more likely to experience persistent pain than younger boys, while there was no difference between age groups for girls.

Fuss points out that girls more frequently seek medical attention for illness and pain than do boys – which makes their findings all the more intriguing.

“Our sample wasn’t drawn from a clinical setting – such as interviewing patients at a walk-in clinic,” she says. “This is a fairly representative sample of Toronto children and adolescents who happened to be visiting the Science Centre with their parents.”

Katz notes that the greater prevalence of chronic pain in women versus men may be tied to psychological factors that appear in childhood.

“Anxiety sensitivity is thought to be a vulnerability factor for the development of chronic pain. The finding that girls had higher levels of anxiety sensitivity than boys may partly explain why the prevalence of chronic pain is greater in women than men,” he says.

“It’s a complex web to untangle in terms of physical versus psychological,” says Fuss. “Is it that the psychological experience of pain differs between the sexes – or even age groups – or is it differences in the physical experience of pain? How are they linked? These are certainly important questions in terms of diagnosis and pain management.”

Fuss’ research is supervised by Katz. Their work is funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Canada Graduate Scholarship to Fuss, and a Canada Research Chair in Health Psychology to Katz.

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.