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Abstract

Background

Habituation and sensitization are important behavioural responses to repeated exposure to painful stimuli, but little is known about the factors determining sensory, affective and sympathetic habituation to repeated pain stimulation in men and women.

Methods

Thirty volunteers (15 women) underwent a standardized heat pain paradigm spread over 8 consecutive days. At the beginning of the experiment, personality dimensions, coping strategies and pain catastrophizing thoughts were determined. Receiving a series of 10 blocks of six painful heat stimuli a day, participants rated pain intensity and unpleasantness. Skin conductance was recorded throughout the sessions.

Results and Conclusion

The results show similar habituation of both the sensory and affective dimensions of pain in men and women, although skin conductance did not undergo a significant decrease across the eight days. When focusing on single daily sessions, women showed pain sensitization but sympathetic habituation, while men showed pain sensitization but stable sympathetic activation. Our findings therefore indicate that the process of long-term habituation to painful heat stimuli is a common feature in both genders, whereas men and women might differently recruit their sympathetic nervous system for short-term pain processing. This study could potentially help to better evaluate gender-specific mechanisms in pain perception.