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Averbeck, Beate; Seitz, Lena; Kolb, Florian P.; Kutz, Dieter F. (2017): Sex differences in thermal detection and thermal pain threshold and the thermal grill illusion: a psychophysical study in young volunteers. In: Biology of Sex Differences 8:29


Background: Sex-related differences in human thermal and pain sensitivity are the subject of controversial discussion. The goal of this study in a large number of subjects was to investigate sex differences in thermal and thermal pain perception and the thermal grill illusion (TGI) as a phenomenon reflecting crosstalk between the thermoreceptive and nociceptive systems. The thermal grill illusion is a sensation of strong, but not necessarily painful, heat often preceded by transient cold upon skin contact with spatially interlaced innocuous warm and cool stimuli. Methods: The TGI was studied in a group of 78 female and 58 male undergraduate students and was evoked by placing the palm of the right hand on the thermal grill (20/40 degrees C interleaved stimulus). Sex-related thermal perception was investigated by a retrospective analysis of thermal detection and thermal pain threshold data that had been measured in student laboratory courses over 5 years (776 female and 476 male undergraduate students) using the method of quantitative sensory testing (QST). To analyse correlations between thermal pain sensitivity and the TGI, thermal pain threshold and the TGI were determined in a group of 20 female and 20 male undergraduate students. Results: The TGI was more pronounced in females than males. Females were more sensitive with respect to thermal detection and thermal pain thresholds. Independent of sex, thermal detection thresholds were dependent on the baseline temperature with a specific progression of an optimum curve for cold detection threshold versus baseline temperature. The distribution of cold pain thresholds was multi-modal and sex-dependent. The more pronounced TGI in females correlated with higher cold sensitivity and cold pain sensitivity in females than in males. Conclusions: Our finding that thermal detection threshold not only differs between the sexes but is also dependent on the baseline temperature reveals a complex processing of "cold" and "warm" inputs in thermal perception. The results of the TGI experiment support the assumption that sex differences in cold-related thermoreception are responsible for sex differences in the TGI.