The biological reason most drugs don’t relieve pain in women

Carolyn Thomas, a Mayo Clinic-trained women’s health advocate tells this story about her granddaughter:

One morning, after Carolyn had taken a hard fall while out with her walking group, her granddaughter examined the bloody scab on Carolyn’s knee and asked, seriously, “Did you cry?”

Carolyn thought a moment, then replied that she’d thought about crying at the time, but then patted herself all over, realized she wasn’t badly hurt and decided not to cry.

This was a revelation to her granddaughter who, like most girls, had been socialized to react to pain with emotion: crying, and sharing verbally how it feels, and how much it hurts.

Little boys, on the other hand, are socialized to be strong, tough and uncomplaining about pain, even to the point of denying that they are in pain.

Ironically, we’re finding out that, beyond how girls and boys are socialized, there are actual biological and chemical reasons that cause women to experience pain differently from their male counterparts, and often more acutely.

A female hormone acts on pain receptors

Dr. Frank Porreca is a professor of pharmacology, anesthesiology, cancer biology and neuroscience at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Together with four other researchers, he has discovered that the actions of a female hormone are responsible for increased functional pain in women.

Functional pain refers to pain that occurs without injury. Migraines and fibromyalgia fall into this category.

Dr. Porreca and his team found that the female hormone prolactin is behind the fact that more females than males experience functional pain. Prolactin’s normal function is to promote lactation in expectant mothers before they give birth and after childbirth.

Prolactin apparently acts on nociceptors, sensory receptors that receive painful stimuli.

And, on top of that, the team has found that taking opioids to try and relieve this type of pain may actually make it worse, inducing a state known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia. That’s right… women receiving treatment with opioids could actually become more sensitive to certain pain.

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A “Catch-22” for women

According to Dr. Porreca, three out of four of the 35 million migraine sufferers in the United States are women. As many as nine out of 10 people with fibromyalgia are also women.

Yet, due to gender bias in health care, women are less likely to receive proper medical attention for their pain.

A Swedish study pointed out that much of the literature on pain describes males with chronic pain as “stoic,” “autonomous” and “in control,” while women in pain are often described as “hysterical,” “malingering” and “fabricating pain” (as if it’s all in their head).

On the other hand, men lose out, too, because of these gender stereotypes.

For example, fibromyalgia is looked at as a “women’s disease,” but in this informative article, Dr. Geo Espinosa talks about fibromyalgia in men

Controlling chronic pain naturally

There are tons of reasons to avoid opioids. Now, we can add the chance of actually making pain worse to that list.

Luckily, there are abundant natural ways to work through chronic pain…

Here’s a list of foods and supplements that can control migraines naturally.

Here’s how the right light could help with migraines, from an affiliate partner.

Here, Dr. Mark Wiley gives us seven ways to beat fibromyalgia pain. And here, Dr. Brad Cutler gives us 18 prescription-free ways to get pain free.

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Sources:

UArizona study identifies hormone that causes women to experience more pain than men

“Brave Men” and “Emotional Women”: A Theory-Guided Literature Review on Gender Bias in Health Care and Gendered Norms towards Patients with Chronic Pain

“Brave men” and “emotional women”: gender bias and pain

Mice Study Identifies Hormone That Suggests Why Women Experience More Pain Than Men

The Girl Who Cried Pain:A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain

A comprehensive review of opioid-induced hyperalgesia

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Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.