During the height of my wife’s pregnancy, I suffered through one of the most painful things I’ve ever endured: kidney stones. For a period of several weeks, it seemed like my wife and I were in a pain competition. Both of us had something growing inside of us: in my wife, it was a miniature human. In me, an evil little piece of calcium.
The similarities didn’t stop there. We were both bedridden because of our condition, and on several nights, the only way either of us could get comfortable was to sleep on our sides with a pillow between our legs. As the baby sprouted arms and legs, my kidney stone grew jagged little spikes all around it. And while the baby would kick my wife with a vengeance, my kidney stone scraped my ureter like a loose muffler along the highway. We both even had the same anesthesiologist.
The parallels in our physical conditions seemed eerily similar to me—not just sympathy pains, but something more proportionate. But my chauvinist male brain worried that I couldn’t possibly make this comparison. If you want to piss off a woman, tell her that passing a kidney stone is the same thing as childbirth. It just sounds so absurd. If I had an 8 pound kidney stone, I guarantee I’d be dead.
Consumed by thoughts that I was just being a wuss, I reached out to Beth Darnall, Ph.D., a pain psychologist at Stanford University.
She explained that “how we experience pain is a very personal and very relative.” When I asked if men experience any pain similar to labor, she called it an “age-old question, and I don’t think you’re going to settle it. But I don’t think there’s an exact equivalent to pushing a human being out of your vagina.”
My fragile male ego was concerned by these answers, so I delved further and asked about the kidney stones. Because pain is so subjective and relative, she said, “one person’s kidney stones could be as severe as another person’s childbirth.”
Another factor for pain, she said, is “context and our appraisal of a situation.” So, a stressful situation could only intensify the feelings of pain.
“A woman has a lot of time to prepare for childbirth, and she knows what it is,” Dr. Darnall told me. “Whereas a man who has no idea what’s going on with kidney stones.” As a result, he may spiral into panic mode, which just deepens and exaggerates his feelings of pain.
I’ve had kidney stones twice, and though the latest stone was considerably bigger, the first experience was far worse because I thought I was literally dying.
The neurological process involved in pain is pretty similar regardless of your gender—but the differences in pain tolerance between men and women couldn’t be more vast.
“Pain is just more painful for women,” said Dr. Darnall. “Men experience pain at a lower intensity.” So if the experience itself is equal—whatever it is that’s causing the pain—women will feel it more acutely than men.
Which doesn’t mean the pain is necessarily worse, it just means women feel it more. They’re more sensitive to pain.
It’s a dangerous argument to get into. It’s veers a bit too closely into “Guys are just better at taking a punch” territory. So let’s leave that part out of it. Let’s just focus on labor pains vs. kidney stones. Which is worse?
Dr. Darnall didn’t have an answer, but recommended that I “find a woman who’s had both a baby and kidney stones and ask her.” Conveniently, I have a sister who’s experienced both, and she didn’t hesitate when I asked.
“Kidney stones, absolutely,” my sister said. “But labor was a bitch, too.”
And kidney stones, as it turns out, isn’t the only pain experience that’s competitive with childbirth. Here are five others that are in the same pain ballpark as labor, and sometimes surpass it.