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Pain in Women

Highlights from a TwitterChat Hosted by the American Society of Anesthesiologists
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On January 29, 2015, the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) hosted a TwitterChat on how pain affects women and how it can be treated. Anita Gupta, DO, PharmD, answered on behalf of ASA, Roger B. Fillingim, PhD, answered on behalf of the American Pain Society, Beth Darnall, PhD, answered on behalf of the Stanford Systems Neuroscience and Pain Lab, and Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, represented both the Stanford Systems Neuroscience and Pain Lab and the American Academy of Pain Medicine in his responses. The following is a summary of the top questions and answers from the chat.

Q: Do men and women deal with pain differently? How and why?

ASALifeline: Yes. Men and women feel pain differently. This could be behavioral. Even under the same amount of pain, women push through the pain. Men seek help and rest more readily, whereas women tend to think the worst and accept the pain. Women use a broader range of coping skills, seeking social support and emotion-focused coping, but they also are more prone to catastrophizing.

Q: Why are women more likely than men to endure their pain?

ASALifeline: It comes down to culturally learned behaviors. Women hold out from seeking help and tend to imagine worse outcomes. Thus, with more advanced disease, the outcomes tend to be worse for women. Also, women are less likely to be offered treatments than men. There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal that highlights this issue: Why Women are Living in the Discomfort Zone.1

Q: When a woman comes to you for help, how long has she typically been dealing with pain? What finally gets her to come to see you?

ASALifeline: This varies, but what finally makes them come in is the failure of various providers to control their pain.

AmericanPainSociety: There is some evidence that women and men have different goals from pain treatment. Care will be sought until goals are met.

ASALifeline: Agreed. Most women go to many other specialists before finding a pain specialist to provide treatment.

StanfordPain: At the Stanford Pain Management Center, women typically have had pain for several years when they come in for their first visit. Women will seek care when the pain is significantly impacting their life and they’re not able to self manage.


Q: How do you define chronic pain?

AmericanPainSociety: Pain that has outlived its usefulness.

ASALifeline: Chronic pain is constant pain for more than 3 months that has no relief with treatments and that interferes with activities of daily life.

StanfordPain: Chronic pain is pain that lasts beyond the expected time of tissue healing.

Q: Are women’s headaches different, more severe? Are women more or less likely to have tension headaches or migraines?

ASALifeline: Everything changes at puberty. Although the risk is the same until puberty, after puberty women are 2 to 3 times more likely than men to have migraines, and they also are more likely to have tension headaches. Men are more likely to have cluster headaches. Sex hormones can affect headaches. 

AmericanPainSociety: Then, after menopause, migraine prevalence in men and women equals out again.

Q: Why do women report more pain after surgery?

AmericanPainSociety: This could be due to more inflammation, worse pain control, increased pain sensitivity, or a higher willingness to report pain.

Q: Why are women less likely to get offered treatments than men?

AmericanPainSociety: One concern is gender bias in pain treatment, with women more likely to have their pain discounted.

ASALifeline: Their pain is more likely to be overlooked, and they are less likely to find the appropriate specialist for treatment.

Q. Are women more or less likely than men to use and become addicted to painkillers?

ASALifeline: Women are more likely to use painkillers and to use them at high doses and for longer periods of time. As mentioned, women have a lower threshold for pain and feel the pain more intensely and for longer periods. Addiction studies show women become addicted over a shorter period and suffer more serious medical complications. In the last decade, there has been a 5-fold increase in women who have overdosed compared with a 3.6-fold increase in men.

Q: How much do you think everyday demands on women—stress, diet, lack of exercise or sleep—are responsible for their pain?

AmericanPainSociety: Women may tolerate their pain due to family/social/job demands. Women are at more risk for sleep problems and stress.

ASALifeline: Pain has a multifactorial pathology. Women can feel better if they can gain better control in all aspects of their lives.

StanfordPain: Your thoughts, emotions, and daily choices have a big impact on your pain experience! You can use pain psychology skills and techniques to better manage your daily pain. Improving your sleep quality can decrease pain and also bolster mood.

Q: Are Americans in general, and women in particular, suffering from pain more today than in the past?

AmericanPainSociety: The prevalence of chronic pain is increasing, partly due to the increasing age and obesity of the population.

ASALifeline: Chronic pain negatively affects older people at increased rates. As the population ages, more Americans, and more women, are in pain than ever before.

AmericanPainSociety: Age is a factor, but studies show increase pain prevalence even after controlling for age.

StanfordPain: Yes, in addition to an aging population, improvements in the treatments of cancer may result in survival but at the cost of chronic pain. Also, we are improving care in major trauma and wartime, but this is resulting in patients living with chronic pain. Finally, obesity also is associated with increased pain.

Q: Do you hear from women that they were told their pain was all in their head?

ASALifeline: I have heard this repeatedly, and studies have shown that men reporting the same complaints receive more aggressive treatment.

AmericanPainSociety: This is a complex issue. Data are mixed, and provider characteristics (eg, gender) play a role, too.

StanfordPain: There are ways to deal with people who doubt your pain.2

Last updated on: April 15, 2015
First published on: April 1, 2015