Pain language and gender differences when describing a past pain event

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Pain is a largely subjective experience, and one which is difficult to convey to others, and relies significantly on language to be communicated. The language used to describe pain is therefore an important aspect of understanding and assessing another's pain. A growing body of research has reported differences in the pain experienced by men and women. However, few studies have examined gender differences, where gender is understood in both the biological and the social sense, in the language used when reporting pain. The purpose of this descriptive and analytical study was to explore gender differences in the language used by articulate men and women when describing a recollected painful event. Two-hundred and one students from an Australian university (35.32% males and 64.68% females) provided written descriptions of a past pain event. These descriptions were analysed using content analysis. Gender differences were identified in the words and patterns of language used, the focus of pain descriptions, and the reported emotional response to pain. Women were found to use more words (t = 4.87, p < 0.001), more McGill Pain Questionnaire descriptors (χ2 = 3.07, p < 0.05), more graphic language than men, and typically focused on the sensory aspects of their pain event. Men used fewer words, less descriptive language, and focused on events and emotions. Common themes were the functional limitations caused by pain, difficulty in describing pain, and the dual nature of pain. Clinical implications include the value of gathering free pain descriptions as part of assessment, and the use of written pain descriptions.

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