Women experience more chronic pain more often and more deeply than men. Unfortunately, doctors are less likely to take their pain seriously and treat it aggressively.
There are real differences between men and women when it comes to chronic pain. Research has found that women experience pain more often and more intensely than men, and respond to pain management therapies and pain medications differently.
Women are more likely than men to have a number of different chronic pain conditions. Women are four to seven times more likely to suffer from fibromyalgia than men, according to 2009 study in the journal Pain Research and Management.
Despite this, pain in women often is undertreated. Research has revealed a gender bias in the way doctors manage pain in women. Women are less likely to be treated for their pain, and the treatment they do receive tends to be less aggressive.
Why More Chronic Pain for Women?
Medical experts have speculated about a number of possible reasons why women experience pain and respond to pain medications differently than men. These include:
- Sex hormones. Doctors believe that there’s a strong link between pain reception and female hormones like estrogen and progesterone. For example, female hormones can cause neurochemical changes that intensify pain sensations. “Some of the breakdown products of progesterone prevent the inhibitory neurotransmitter from working,” Dr. Moskowitz said. “When that happens, the nerves just keep firing.” Also, some pain conditions like migraines tend to vary depending on a woman’s menstrual cycle.
- Brain structure and chemistry. Researchers have found that women’s central pain processors show greater activity than those of men who are experiencing similar levels of pain. Other studies have found that women and men respond better to different types of opioid painkillers, possibly because those pain medications work on different areas of the brain.
- Genetics. Many chronic pain conditions are linked to genetics, and those conditions differ between genders.
- Biological differences. Women tend to experience more pain simply due to their biology, which involves painful processes like menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth.
- Societal conditioning and gender roles. Some doctors believe women report pain more often because society teaches them to be more expressive than men. They also may be more self-aware than men and more in touch with their bodies.
Gender Bias and Pain Management
Research has found that a true bias exists in medicine regarding the way doctors manage pain in men and women. Physicians may not take women’s pain complaints as seriously as they do those of men, and they don’t pursue aggressive therapies that could relieve that pain. For example, one recent study revealed that physicians were 22 times more likely to recommend knee surgery as an arthritis treatment for men than they were for women, even though the procedure is considered a definitive way to treat arthritis when other therapies have failed.
There are a number of possible reasons why this bias occurs, including:
- Traditional American societal attitudes have maintained that women are emotional and overly sensitive, which has influenced the way doctors interpret their pain and manage it. A doctor might assume that a woman’s reported pain is “all in her mind” and fail to investigate it properly.
- Men are better able to communicate their pain in ways their doctors will understand. This could be because there are more male pain physicians than female pain physicians, even though female patients outnumber male patients, Moskowitz says.
- Women are more likely to have chronic pain conditions that are harder to diagnose and treat. “Women tend to have conditions that have been baffling to us, like fibromyalgia,” Moskowitz says. “It’s been treated as mental or hormonal, rather than as a true disease or disorder.”
How Women Can Get Better Pain Management
Moskowitz says women who feel their pain is not being treated seriously should:
- Express their concerns to their doctor. “She should feel comfortable talking to the doctor about that and say she feels she’s not being taken seriously because she’s a woman,” Moskowitz says.
- Change doctors. “The best way to express dissatisfaction with your doctor’s care is to vote with your feet,” advises Moskowitz.
- Reach out to a pain advocacy group like the American Pain Foundation. “If a person believes they are being treated unreasonably, there are people [at the foundation] they can speak with to get some help and perspective,” Moskowitz stresses. “They’ll actually go as far as to look into this stuff and if there’s a problem, make a complaint about it.”
The takeaway is that you are entitled to have your pain diagnosed and treated — don’t be shy about getting the medical attention you need. For more information visit: