Throughout the month of March, Aches and Gains will be celebrating Women’s History Month. As a time to reflect on the many challenges women have faced over the past few centuries, we also look at the many ways the gender gap still exists. For the Aches and Gains team, that means analyzing the gender gap through the lens we know best – pain.
We all experience pain in some form or another. Gender, Race, and Religion don’t protect us from feeling pain, and chronic pain can affect each individual differently – particularly women. In fact, large epidemiological studies show that pain is reported more frequently by women than men.
Chronic pain is different for women. Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain than men, but less likely to receive the treatment they need to truly reduce or eliminate their discomfort. But why is it that so many women are suffering from pain without getting the help they need?
Oscar-winning American actress Susan Sarandon put it this way, “When all you know is pain, you don’t know that that is not normal. It is not a woman’s lot to suffer, even if we’ve been raised that way.”
Chronic Pain and the Gender Bias
There is no denying that there are major differences between the male body and the female body. With different organs, different capabilities, and different needs, the male and female bodies can experience different things – especially when it comes to pain.
There are many reasons that chronic pain can appear more frequently in women than in men. Here are just a few of the proposed mechanisms of chronic pain in women:
- Hormone Changes: While sex hormones themselves do not cause pain, they can lead to some seriously debilitating conditions. For example, the hormonal shifts a woman experiences may cause migraines. This would explain why, according to the Migraine Research Foundation, 18% of women experience migraines compared to 6% of men.
- Biological Differences: Women are built to withstand more pain. From monthly menstrual cramps to childbirth, women often experience more episodic and significant pain than men. Women are more highly evolved in their sense organs too – visual cues, temperature, and smell. Some have proposed that a greater sensitivity to pain may make sense as well. Biological differences could be the source of chronic pain in some women.
- Response to Medication: Because women generally have smaller organs and store fat differently than men, they vary in how they absorb and distribute medication compared to men experiencing the same symptoms. They may express more sensitivity to drug therapy which can make treatments seem ineffective or fraught with side effects.
- Societal Interference: The differences in reactions for young girls and boys in pain may also play a role in why women report chronic pain more frequently than men. Many young boys believe they need to “suck it up” while young girls are taught to be emotional and expressive in how they’re feeling. These perceptions may follow them through life, whether they realize it or not.
These are just a few of the popular concepts related to why chronic pain is more prevalent in women than men. Despite the reasons a woman may experience chronic pain, it is important that she be properly treated.
Chronic Pain Conditions and Treatment Options for Women
Although women are more likely to experience chronic pain, they are actually less likely to receive the treatment they need. Doctors may be more hesitant to prescribe aggressive drugs or treatment to a woman, or they may feel the woman has a psychological problem rather than a physical problem, delaying the pain treatment they actually need.
The idea that doctors and healthcare providers won’t believe a woman complaining about pain may lead her to suffer in silence rather than seek outl the treatment she needs. As chronic pain remains untreated, it often gets worse – leading to more debilitation.
According to a National Pain Report Survey, only 9% of interviewees believed the healthcare system does not discriminate against female patients. The other 91% of survey participants reported that the healthcare system discriminated against women on various levels. A whopping 84% of survey participants felt they had been treated differently by a doctor because of their sex.
More common pain conditions in women include multiple sclerosis, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, pelvic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome. When the pain associated with these conditions is left untreated, women may be forced to suffer in pain.
Women with chronic pain shouldn’t feel as if there isn’t an option for relief. With the right treatment, education, and attention, women with chronic pain conditions can find the appropriate medication or therapy that eases their pain, allowing them to regain control of their lives.
Remember, no one is immune to pain, but together we can overcome it.