Get access

Sensory and sympathetic correlates of heat pain sensitization and habituation in men and women


  • Funding sources

    Supported by the DFG (Graduiertenkolleg 1044/2), Stiftung RLP (Project 936) and the Focus Program Translational Neurosciences (FTN) of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

  • Conflicts of interest

    None declared.


Markus Breimhorst




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.


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.