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Female pain has been grossly overlooked—and a recent study points to a reason why


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Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell

Women are no strangers to pain. In addition to experiencing the obvious, like period symptoms (which some doctors claim can cause cramps as painful as heart attacks) and childbirth, women are also significantly more prone to endometriosis and chronic pain disorders such as fibromyalgia than men. And so, the fact that doctors and experts have consistently undermined women’s pain is infuriating. A recent study has found fundamental biological differences in pain receptors between the sexes (at least in mice), and it’s a scientific explanation for why female pain and health has been vastly overlooked by the medical community.

Following a 2014 mandate from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledging sex as a biological variable and therefore requiring testing to be done on male and female animals, this NIH study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, examined pain receptors in male and female mice and found them to be extremely different. While the researchers were able to manipulate certain receptors in the male mice to abolish chronic pain, doing the same to female mice had no effect. Basically, pain registers differently for males and females at the cellular level.

“We’ve been overlooking a key variable for a long time, and I’m as guilty as everyone else,” said Ted Price, PhD and co-author of the study, adding that the recent mandated inclusion of both female and male animals in test studies has led to a slew of discoveries and findings that were previously overlooked.

While a caveat of this study is that it was conducted on mice (as are many other medical studies), it’s speculated that pain receptors in humans would mirror the mice’s in being sex-specific, according to Inverse.

In a press release, Ted Price, PhD and co-author of the study, admitted, “We’ve been overlooking a key variable for a long time, and I’m as guilty as everyone else.” He added that the recent mandated inclusion of both female and male animals in test studies has led to a slew of discoveries and findings that were previously ignored in situations when preclinical and clinical trials yielded different results likely due to the sex disparity.

Dr. Price explained further that this has led to the mistreatment of women: Since preclinical investigators studied males and clinical trials studied females (“because more women suffer chronic pain than men,” he said), the findings would be inconsistent. Ultimately, the findings could lead to sex-specific drugs that are more effective at managing chronic pain, according to Dr. Price. So here’s hoping this is the first of many studies that ramp up how seriously women’s health is taken.

Until that day though, describing your level of discomfort to your doctor in super-specific terms is your best bet for receiving an effective course of treatment. According to WBUR, a recent study by John Markman, MD, revealed that the traditional model of ranking your pain level on a scale of 0 to 10 might not give your physician a realistic idea of what you’re actually going through. In fact, when participants were asked to define their pain numerically and descriptively, the number tended to skew higher than on the pain scale than the adjectives paired with it. Most patients, for example, who stated pains levels between a 4 and 7 (which is widely regarded as needing more medication) described the pain as tolerable (which does not call for more pain treatment). This means doctors who only communicate with their patients in figures could be overprescribing and overtreating their patients during a time when opioid-addictions present a major health concern.

So the next time you visit your doctor’s office, Chrystina Jeter, MD, recommends being as descriptive as possible when it comes to describing your ailment. Use accurate metaphors, compare your current levels of pain to past ones (including how you felt earlier that day), disclose what activities the condition is keeping you from doing, and be transparent about your medical history. It may feel like you’re totally over-sharing, but you’re really just making sure your doc is getting a 360 view of whatever’s standing in your way of being healthy and happy.

Originally published March 9, 2018; updated on July 25, 2018 with additional reporting from Kells McPhillips.

Celebrities like Lady Gaga and Lena Dunham have been extremely open about sharing their experiences with their respective chronic pain issues. 

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