Life with chronic pain is an uncomfortable reality that many people are navigating. They often suffer in silence, putting on a brave face for their loved ones as they carry out their daily responsibilities. It has recently been discovered through research that most of these courageous individuals are women.
New studies shine a light on how men and women experience pain differently. We’re here to explore why. We also want you to know that if you suffer from chronic pain, you’re not alone. There are treatment options available to lighten your load and bring relief to your days.
Why Do Women Have Chronic Pain More Commonly Than Men?
For a long time, nearly all medical studies were performed on men. The fear was that uncontrolled factors, such as women’s hormones and menstrual cycles, would disrupt the outcomes of the studies. However, these are some of the very factors that are finally providing answers as to why women make up 70% of those who suffer from chronic pain — often more intensely, for longer periods and in more areas of their bodies than men.
While scientists are still in the discovery process and more research is needed, some of the key reasons that chronic pain is more common in women are:
- Hormones: Women experience fluctuating hormones as part of their biology. From puberty and menstrual cycles to pregnancy and menopause, these are all factors that play a role in why and how women experience pain.
Studies show evidence of a possible link between hormones and pain sensitivity in and of itself. For example, migraines are most common in women during their childbearing years, between the ages of 20 and 45.
- Nerves: Women have been found to have twice as many nerves per square centimeter. More nerves mean more feeling, which helps explain why women tend to feel much more pain than their male counterparts.
Fibromyalgia, an illness characterized by widespread chronic pain, is thought to be connected to overactive nerves and how pain is processed by the brain. An overwhelming 90% of fibromyalgia patients are women.
- Social/Psychological Impact: Women tend to focus more on the emotional impact and the stress caused by chronic pain. Stress is known to intensify pain that is already there. Men focus more on physical sensations only, which may make coping easier.
Data from the CDC shows that 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic violence, physical violence or rape compared to 1 in 7 men. Research suggests that trauma such as this may contribute to or worsen pain conditions.
Different Forms of Chronic Pain
With research finding such a difference between the male and female experiences of pain, here is some insight into how women experience pain in four common areas:
- Abdominal Pain: Studies show that there is about a 3-to-1 female-to-male ratio in the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome in the U.S. Those with the condition have recurring symptoms of abdominal pain and bowel problems.
- Headache: Findings from more than 60 studies show that women suffer from headaches and migraines at a higher rate than men. One major study that included 29,000 adults estimated a one-year prevalence of migraines among Americans is 18% in women and 7% in men.
- Musculoskeletal Pain: A study that spanned 17 countries on six continents with more than 85,000 participants showed that chronic musculoskeletal pain is more common in women. Different types of pain in the study were back pain, whole body pain, fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.
- Pelvic Pain: Women can experience chronic pelvic pain with their menstrual cycles, from conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, complications from childbirth and from intimate partner violence.
Treatment Options for Chronic Pain
The experience of pain isn’t determined only by one’s gender. Pain is a very individual experience that only the person who feels it truly understands, so treatment must also be individualized to each patient’s needs. There are over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, physical therapy and, if needed, surgery available to treat pain, depending on what kind, the cause and to what level of pain experienced.
At AdventHealth, we know that physical pain wreaks havoc on your whole system, including your emotions. So we treat you as a whole person — body, mind and spirit.
If you’re in pain that isn’t subsiding, the best place to start is by reaching out to your primary care physician to schedule an appointment today. We can help you individualize a treatment plan to get you on the path to less pain and a more fulfilling life. Learn more about our pain care services here.