Group differences in pain modulation: Pain-free women compared to pain-free men and to women with TMD

Edith E. Bragdon, Kathleen C. Light, Nancy L. Costello, Asgeir Sigurdsson, Shelley Bunting, Kanokporn Bhalang, William Maixner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previously reported differences in sensitivity to experimental pain stimuli between the sexes, as well as between temporomandibular disorder (TMD) patients and healthy control subjects, may be attributable in part to group differences in two pain modulatory mechanisms: the baroreceptor reflex arc and the endogenous opioid system. Twenty-two pain-free (PF) men, 20 PF women and 20 women with TMD underwent two testing sessions in which heat pain and ischemic arm pain threshold and tolerance were measured during both sessions, but followed relaxation during one session and laboratory stress tasks during the other. Blood pressure (BP) and plasma β-endorphin (βE) concentration were measured during a baseline rest and during the stress or relaxation periods. PF men's threshold and tolerance for heat pain, but not for ischemic pain, exceeded that of PF women's during both sessions. PF women and TMD women did not differ in sensitivity to either pain modality; however, significantly lower ischemic pain threshold (IPTh) was linked to oral contraceptive use in PF women but not TMD patients. In the men alone, higher baseline systolic BP (SBP) was correlated with higher heat pain threshold on both days and heat pain tolerance on the stress day. Conversely, in TMD women, higher baseline SBP was correlated with lower ischemic pain tolerance (IPTol) on both days; BP and pain sensitivity were not related in PF women. In men, but not in PF or TMD women, stress systolic and diastolic BP were positively correlated with heat pain threshold and tolerance and higher diastolic reactivity to stress were correlated with higher heat pain and IPTh and tolerance. On the stress day, higher baseline βE level was strongly associated with higher IPTol in PF women but marginally associated with lower IPTol in TMD women. Thus, it appears that a BP-related analgesic mechanism (probably baroreceptor-mediated) predominates in PF men, while an endogenous opioid mechanism predominates in PF women. Stress enhances the expression of these central mechanisms. Female TMDs appear unable to effectively engage normal pain-inhibitory systems; opioid receptor desensitization and/or downregulation are probably implicated, because TMDs' production of βE appears normal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)227-237
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002


  • Blood pressure
  • Experimental pain stimuli
  • Gender differences
  • Temporomandibular disorder
  • β-Endorphin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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