The Gender Gap in Pain

I wanted to share this New York Times article on the difference between how men and women are treated for chronic pain and how our bodies respond to medicine and therapies differently. I found it very interesting. I know I’ve encountered doctors who don’t believe fibromyalgia is real or believe that my symptoms are all in my head or do to depression or some other mental health issue. There really does need to be better awareness of how chronic pain should be treated to make it easier for patients suffering from it to get the medicine and treatments they need to feel better without searching for years for the right doctor or jumping through hoops to get a treatment or medicine approved by insurance. We also shouldn’t have to research treatment options available to us and educate our doctors about them, but we do.

The Gender Gap in Pain

TO the list of differences between men and women, we can add one more: the drug-dose gender gap. Doctors and researchers increasingly understand that there can be striking variations in the way men and women respond to drugs, many of which are tested almost exclusively on males. Early this year, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it was cutting in half the prescribed dose of Ambien for women, who remained drowsy for longer than men after taking the drug.

Women have hormonal cycles, smaller organs, higher body fat composition — all of which are thought to play a role in how drugs affect our bodies. We also have basic differences in gene expression, which can make differences in the way we metabolize drugs. For example, men metabolize caffeine more quickly, while women metabolize certain antibiotics and anxiety medications more quickly. In some cases, drugs work less effectively depending on sex; women are less responsive to anesthesia and ibuprofen for instance. In other cases, women are at more risk for adverse — even lethal — side effects.

These differences are particularly important for the millions of women living with chronic pain. An estimated 25 percent of Americans experience chronic pain, and a disproportionate number of them are women. A review published in the Journal of Pain in 2009 found that women faced a substantially greater risk of developing pain conditions. They are twice as likely to have multiple sclerosis, two to three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and four times more likely to have chronic fatigue syndrome than men. As a whole, autoimmune diseases, which often include debilitating pain, strike women three times more frequently than men.

While hormonal, genetic and even environmental factors might influence the manifestation and progression of autoimmune diseases, we don’t yet know the reason for this high prevalence in women.

Pain conditions are a particularly good example of the interplay between sex (our biological and chromosomal differences) and gender (the cultural roles and expectations attributed to a person). In 2011, the Institute of Medicine published a report on the public health impact of chronic pain, called “Relieving Pain in America.” It found that not only did women appear to suffer more from pain, but that women’s reports of pain were more likely to be dismissed.

This is a serious problem, because pain is subjective and self-reported, and diagnosis and treatment depend on the assumption that the person reporting symptoms is beyond doubt.

The oft-cited study “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain” found that women were less likely to receive aggressive treatment when diagnosed, and were more likely to have their pain characterized as “emotional,” “psychogenic” and therefore “not real.”

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2 thoughts on “The Gender Gap in Pain

  1. csgomez79 says:

    This is so true. The pain specialist I saw told me to do yoga and warm water therapy. Then he looks at my stomach and smirks and tells me to work on my core.

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