Women and Pain | Part 1

‘As many as 50 million American women live with one or more neglected and poorly understood chronic pain conditions’

Generally I see more female patients than male. This observation supports the view that chronic pain is more prevalent in women than in men for some conditions – see the International Association for the Study of Pain fact sheet here. There are some ideas as to why this may be, including the role of the sex hormones and psychosocial factors such as emotion, coping strategies and roles in life. Additionally, experimental studies have shown that women have lower pain thresholds (this is a physiological reading) and tolerance to a range of pain stimuli when compared to men although this does not clarify that women actually feel more pain – see here. Pain is a subjective experience of course, and modulated by many factors.

It is not uncommon for a female patient to tell me about her back pain and continue the narrative towards other body areas that hurt and cause problems. This may include pelvic pain, migraine, headache, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic knee pain, widespread sensitivity and gynaecological problems (including dysmenorrhoea, endometriosis and difficulty conceiving). These seemingly varied conditions are typically looked after by a range of medical and surgical disciplines: gynaecology, neurology, rheumatology, gastroenterology and orthopaedics. More recent science and thinking has started to join the dots on these problems, offering new insight into the underpinning mechanisms and more importantly approaches that can affect all the conditions in a positive way. This is certainly my thinking on this hugely significant matter.

Reconceptualising pain

Undoubtedly pain is complex. This is particularly the case when pain persists, disrupting and impacting upon life. Reconceptualising pain according to modern neuroscience is making a real difference to how we think and treat pain – see this video. Briefly, thinking of pain as an output from the brain as a result of a complex interaction of circumstance, biology, thought, emotion and memory begins to give an insight into the workings of the brain and body. Pain is individual, it is in the ‘now’ but so coloured by the past and what it may mean to the individual. The context or situation in which the pain arises is so very important. We talk about pain from the brain but of course we really feel it in our physical bodies, but the location is where the brain is projecting the sensation – see this video.

Neuroscience has shown us that the danger signals from the body tissues are significantly modulated by the brain before the end output is experienced. Factors that influence the messages include attention, expectation and the circustance in which the individual finds herself. We have powerful mechanisms that can both facilitate and inhibit the flow of these signals and these reside within the brain and brain stem. For this reason we must consider the person’s situation, their expectations, hopes, goals, past experiences and current difficulties, and how these can affect their current pain.

Stress & emotion

Any hugely emotive issue within someone’s life can impact enormously upon pain and sensitivity. This can be the stress of a situation including caring for a relative, losing someone close, work related issues and divorce. The problem of conception certainly features in a number of cases that I see, causing stress and turmoil for both partners but clearly in different ways. Fertility receives a great deal of attention in the media and there are a many clinics offering treatment and therapies, in effect raising awareness and attention levels towards the problem. The pain caused by difficulties having children can manifest physically through the stress that is created by the situation. Thoughts, feeling and emotions are nerve impulses in the brain like any other and will trigger physical responses including tension. Stress physiology affects all body systems, for example the gastrointestinal system (e.g./ irritable bowel), nervous system (e.g. headaches, back pain) and the immune system (e.g. repeated infections).

Lifestyle

Lifestyle factors play a significant role in persisting pain. Modern technology and habits that we form easily may not be helpful when we have a sensitive nervous system. For example, sedentary work, the light from computer screens, pressures at work, limited exercise, poor diet, binge drinking and smoking to name but a few. All are toxic in some way as can be our own thinking about ourselves. When we have a thought, and we have thousands each day, and we pay attention, becoming absorbed in the process, the brain reacts as if we are actually in that situation. Consequently we have physical and emotional responses that can be repeated over and over when we dwell on the same thinking. This is rumination and is likely due to ‘hyper-connectivity’ between certain brain areas – see here. We can challenge this in several ways including by changing our thinking and using mindfulness, both of which will alter brain activity and dampen these responses. It does take practice but the benefits are attainable for everyone.

In summary, the underlying factors that must be addressed are individual and both physical and psychological. Pain is complex and personal, potentially affecting many different areas of life. How we live our lives, what we think and how we feel are all highly relevant in the problem of pain as borne out of sensible thinking and the neuroscience of pain. Understanding the pain, learning strategies to reduce the impact, receiving treatment that targets the underlying mechanisms, making healthy changes to lifestyle and developing good habits alongside the contemporary brain based therapies can make a huge difference and provide a route forwards.

RS

www.specialistpainphysio.com | Specialist Pain Physio Clinics in London for chronic pain and injury

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4 thoughts on “Women and Pain | Part 1

  1. The relationship between hormone changes and the CNS is important to take into account. My chronic pain is going into remission but it tends to still flare up the day before menstruation starts (I only realised this once the rest of the month got so much better!). Depleted estrogen affects many things including oxygenation, if I am not mistaken? and may other aspects. It is important to flag these aspects and not rely too much on psychogenic factors – although the latter are important too – you can reduce lifestyle and stress factors all you like and still have flare ups when estrogen levels change – PMS – menopause, etc. It is a delicate balance … but worth recognising that women do have many stresses in their lives which are different from men due to social expectations and economic disparities. Finally, are men really less affected or do they report their health issues less?

    • Hi Lisa! Stress and pain actually deplete estrogen when experienced chronically. Some people have luck with the topical estrogen creams designed for menopausal women. I am on so many things I haven’t been able to isolate an effect from the cream for certain, but I suspect that during particularly high pain weeks adding a little estrogen back in could be helpful. Check out some of Dr. Forrest Tennant’s writings for the supporting research if you’re interested.

  2. There are a couple videos referenced in this post that didn’t have links to them–I would love to view them if you can put the links in! Thanks for posting this! I always thought women had higher pain tolerance than men, based on the childbirth thing and other folk wisdom. Interesting to hear that it isn’t born out scientificially. Charged topic for sure.

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