How Gender Affects Chronic Pain

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Women Feel Pain More Strongly

Studies in mice suggest our sex hormones may influence our experience of pain. Male mice injected with the female sex hormone, estrogen, seem to tolerate pain less, while an injection of the male sex hormone, testosterone, appears to increase the pain tolerance of female mice. This research led scientists to believe estrogen could serve as a pain switch, alerting the body of the presence of pain.

Human tests also examined the responses of men and women exposed to gradually increasing heat. They found women typically complain of this type of pain before men.

Brain Response Varies Between Genders

A University of California study of people with irritable bowel syndrome found male and female brains respond differently to their condition. When the women were in pain, their limbic system, the brain’s emotional core, was activated. In contrast, pain lit up the cognitive parts of the male brain. This difference makes women in pain more likely to experience depression.

Fewer Men Diagnosed with Chronic Pain Conditions

Studies show more than 70 percent of people diagnosed with a chronic pain condition are women. Men are diagnosed far less with a variety of painful conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, fibromyalgia, and temporomandibular joint disorder.

Women are also three times more likely to experience migraine headaches. These are triggered by estrogen’s ebb and flow during a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Different Genders Respond Differently to Treatments

The effectiveness of pain relief treatments also varies according to gender. For example, the type of painkillers called kappa-opioids more effectively relieves the pain of women than men. The reason for this isn’t clear, although scientists believe estrogen may enhance their effects or that testosterone may prevent them from working well.

Women Cope Better with Pain

Women also typically cope better with their symptoms. Studies show women are less likely to allow pain to rule their lives. This may be because they are more likely to use coping mechanisms, such as distracting themselves or seeking support from others. It may also be because their bodies are used to coping with painful episodes, such as menstrual cramps and childbirth.

Women Recover From Pain More Quickly

Research suggests women recover from pain more quickly than their male peers. This may be partly because women typically seek medical assistance for their pain more quickly than men.

However, research from the National Women’s Health Resource Center has found women suffering with chronic pain often struggle to convince doctors of its severity. Because of this, they’re more likely to have insufficient treatment.

Scientists are fascinated by the way pain impacts people of both genders. Through their ongoing research, we’re learning more about the way men and women respond to pain. It’s hoped these studies could help scientists create new and more effective pain medications for people of both genders.

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