Do women get too much or too little pain medication?

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A new Spanish study has found that women are significantly more likely than men to be prescribed pain medication, regardless of age or socioeconomic status.

By Lorie A. Parch

You may not be surprised. Women worldwide have pain more often than men, “so it’s logical that they are prescribed more analgesics,” said lead researcher Elisa Chilet-Rossell in a press release about the study, which was published in Gaceta Sanitaria.

But other studies have found that women aren’t given sufficient pain medication often enough. In a 2001 paper, “The girl who cried pain: a bias against women in the treatment of pain,” published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, authors Diane E. Hoffmann and Anita J. Tarzian looked at research examining whether women and men experience pain differently, biological differences between the sexes that could account for such differences or the frequency of pain-related conditions, and psychological and cultural differences.

Examining differences in treatment as well, Hoffmann and Tarzian reported that women received less pain medication following abdominal surgery than men did, that men got more narcotics than women when undergoing the same procedure (a coronary artery bypass graft), and that women were more likely to be given sedatives rather than narcotics.

The authors also cited a study of post-operative children that found “significantly more codeine is given to boys and that girls are more likely to be given acetaminophen.” They conclude that the research indicates that women experience more and worse pain than men but are less likely to get adequate treatment for it.

Is there a legitimate scientific basis for this discrepancy?

Early last year, a review of research on pain and gender revealed few differences between the sexes in pain perception. The researchers, at the University of Quebec, examined 172 articles published between 1998 and 2008 and found that men and women are essentially the same when pain intensity and “unpleasantness” are measured. In fact, the study authors wrote, “10 years of laboratory research have not been successful in producing a clear and consistent pattern of sex differences in human pain sensitivity.”

So if men and women largely experience pain similarly ways, why in the world would we treat women differently when it comes to medication or diagnosis? It may be a good question and maybe one you’ve asked yourself but it’s clearly not one with a clear answer or a simple solution.

Have you experienced any gender bias regarding diagnosis and treatment of chronic pain or pain-related conditions? If so, please join our communitytoday to share your story.

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Lorie A. Parch is a writer, editor, and content strategist with over 20 years' experience in consumer content across print, digital, and social media. She has held staff roles at AOL (UK), Yahoo!, Conde Nast, Hearst, Time Inc., American Media/Weider, and Gruner + Jahr, among other companies, and has contributed to dozens of magazines and sites. Lorie lives in Los Angeles, where she runs her small communications firm, 828 Communications.

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