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Sex differences in physical symptoms: The contribution of symptom perception theory


  • van Wijk, Cécile M. T. Gijsbers
  • Kolk, Annemarie M.


Health surveys, studies on physical symptom reporting, and medical registration of physical complaints find consistent sex differences in symptom reporting, with women having the higher rates. By and large, this female excess of physical symptoms is independent from the symptom measure, response format and time frame used, and the population under study. As most studies concern healthy individuals, the sex difference can not simply be attributed to a greater physical morbidity in women. In this paper we propose a number of explanations for this phenomenon, based on a biopsychosocial perspective on symptom perception. We discuss a symptom perception model that brings together factors and processes from the extant literature which are thought to affect symptom reporting, such as somatic information, selection of information through attention and distraction, attribution of somatic sensations, and the personality factors somatisation and negative affectivity. Finally, we discuss the explanations for sex differences in physical symptoms that arise from the model.

Suggested Citation

  • van Wijk, Cécile M. T. Gijsbers & Kolk, Annemarie M., 1997. "Sex differences in physical symptoms: The contribution of symptom perception theory," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 45(2), pages 231-246, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:45:y:1997:i:2:p:231-246

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    Cited by:

    1. Gail Pacheco & Dom Page & Don Webber, 2012. "Mental and physical health: reconceptualising the relationship with employment propensity," Working Papers 20121206, Department of Accounting, Economics and Finance, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, Bristol.
    2. Van Diest, Ilse & De Peuter, Steven & Eertmans, Audrey & Bogaerts, Katleen & Victoir, An & Van den Bergh, Omer, 2005. "Negative affectivity and enhanced symptom reports: Differentiating between symptoms in men and women," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 61(8), pages 1835-1845, October.
    3. Whitehead, Brenda R. & Bergeman, C.S., 2016. "Affective health bias in older adults: Considering positive and negative affect in a general health context," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 165(C), pages 28-35.
    4. Torsheim, Torbjørn & Ravens-Sieberer, Ulrike & Hetland, Jorn & Välimaa, Raili & Danielson, Mia & Overpeck, Mary, 2006. "Cross-national variation of gender differences in adolescent subjective health in Europe and North America," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 62(4), pages 815-827, February.
    5. Brandner, Susanne & Müller-Nordhorn, Jacqueline & Stritter, Wiebke & Fotopoulou, Christina & Sehouli, Jalid & Holmberg, Christine, 2014. "Symptomization and triggering processes: Ovarian cancer patients' narratives on pre-diagnostic sensation experiences and the initiation of healthcare seeking," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 119(C), pages 123-130.
    6. Orfila, Francesc & Ferrer, Montserrat & Lamarca, Rosa & Tebe, Cristian & Domingo-Salvany, Antonia & Alonso, Jordi, 2006. "Gender differences in health-related quality of life among the elderly: The role of objective functional capacity and chronic conditions," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 63(9), pages 2367-2380, November.
    7. Koopmans, Gerrit T. & Lamers, Leida M., 2007. "Gender and health care utilization: The role of mental distress and help-seeking propensity," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 64(6), pages 1216-1230, March.
    8. MacLean, Alice & Sweeting, Helen & Hunt, Kate, 2010. "'Rules' for boys, 'guidelines' for girls: Gender differences in symptom reporting during childhood and adolescence," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 70(4), pages 597-604, February.
    9. Quan-Hoang Vuong, 2017. "Psychological gender differences in general health examinations: evidence from a 2016 Vietnamese cross-section dataset," Working Papers CEB 17-005, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.


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