Common Pain Conditions in Women
Pain is a universal condition that afflicts people of all backgrounds, but there is undeniable evidence that chronic pain is more common among women than men. There are many reasons why women are more susceptible to chronic pain including structural differences, hormonal influences, and greater sensitivity to pain. There are also external, social phenomena that make pain more common among women like a higher risk of violence or sexual assault.
In general, women are likely to experience pain more often and more intensely than men. Many of the most common chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and migraines strike women far more than men. However, women are less likely to receive medical treatment and the treatment that is provided is usually less aggressive than that given to men.
It is well established that 80 to 90 percent of fibromyalgia cases affect women, and women who develop fibromyalgia tend to experience more severe pain symptoms. Due to the gender disparity and the fact that fibromyalgia most often appears during the reproductive years, it is believed that this condition may be related to certain female hormones like estrogen.
More specifically, it is the changes in estrogen levels which is believed to trigger fibromyalgia episodes. Testosterone may also play an important role in this condition since it is believed that testosterone reduces pain sensitivity.
Not only do migraines strike three times more women than men, but the symptoms of migraines in women appear to be more potent. Prior to adolescence, migraines occur more often among males, but following puberty it is far more common among girls and, among half of all female migraine sufferers, it is linked to the menstrual cycle.
Although there is a clear relationship between migraines and hormones in some women, treating this condition is not as straightforward as it seems. Estrogen supplements may reduce the number of migraines, trigger a migraine episode or have no visible effect.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is 1.5 to 3 times more common in women than men. This digestive disorder presents with abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea or constipation. While many male and female IBS sufferers may experience this condition similarly, symptoms may worsen for women during certain times of their menstrual cycle.
Some studies into Irritable bowel syndrome in women point to the following factors as to why women are more susceptible:
- Gastrointestinal transit times
- Estrogen and progesterone effects on gut function
- Pain processing mechanisms
- Visceral sensitivity
- Psychosocial differences
Chronic Pelvic Pain
Chronic pelvic pain is a lower abdominal pain that persists longer than six months; it may be an independent pain condition or a symptom of another health issue. In many circumstances, it is difficult to identify a root cause of this pain condition. The pain may be steady or intermittent; dull or sharp; or superficial or deep in the tissue. Many women experience symptoms during intercourse, while expelling waste, or sitting for long periods.
Chronic pelvic pain is estimated to appear in 6 to 27 percent of women, but it is also common among men. In both cases, the most common causes are related to sexual or urinary dysfunction. Among women, the most common causes include endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis or pelvic inflammatory disease. The most common cause of chronic pelvic pain in men is prostatitis.
Many forms of arthritis, including the two most common forms—osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis—disproportionately afflict women. About 25 percent of women will develop some type of arthritis compared to 20 percent of men. Women are also more likely to experience more severe pain than men.
Arthritis is likely to affect men differently than women. Men are more likely to get arthritis before age 55, but after this age, women are at much greater risk. Furthermore, men develop arthritis most commonly in their hips, while women experience it in their hands and knees; this in part, due to more flexible hips in women, but greater stress on their knees due to anatomical differences.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder
Temporomandibular joint disorder or TMD is a class of pain disorders related to the joint where the jaw meets the skull. TMD is five times more likely to occur in women than men; women also tend to experience more severe symptoms like reduced jaw movement and chronic pain.
There is no consensus as to why women are more likely to encounter temporomandibular joint disorder than men, but many theorize that the hormones estrogen and progesterone play key roles. At different times in the menstrual cycle, these hormones may help loosen ligaments in the jaw which can aggravate TMD symptoms. Anatomical and stress response differences may also be partially at fault for this gender imbalance.
Challenges for Female Patients
It is difficult for many people to convince a physician that their pain condition is real, but this may be doubly so for women. There remains a bias against women for a variety of reasons, so many women with pain issues must be diligent in searching for a pain specialist that will take their complaints seriously. Many doctors feel that women are overly emotional and sensitive, while studies show that men are more convincing in how they describe their pain.
If you are a female pain patient who is having problems with obtaining pain treatment, consider the following options:
- Lay out the situation clearly—don’t be afraid to express your frustration to your physician. If necessary, detail how you believe you are not getting equivalent treatment to a man.
- Look for a new doctor—if your current doctor is not providing the care that you think you deserve, then find a new one. You may want to look for a pain specialist, preferably one that has a strong history in treating female patients.
- Get advice from a medical authority—if you are still having difficulty getting the medical care you need, you can try discussing your issue with a major medical authority like the American Pain Association or the American Chronic Pain Association.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
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