Chronic pain is a prevalent health concern, and it disproportionately affects women. Research over the past couple decades has confirmed that women’s physiology is more amenable to pain than men’s. Studies have found women to generally possess lower pain thresholds than men; women’s thresholds vary due to hormonal changes throughout their cycles; women’s natural analgesic (pain-relieving) responses are different from men’s – several rodent studies have confirmed that males have stronger innate analgesic responses than females. It is believed that this transfers to humans. Overall, women are more susceptible to pain, and, due to differences in the analgesic response, they aren’t affected by pain medication in the same way as men.
See more on the research into sex differences in chronic pain at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
What does this mean for medical research? A well-rounded understanding of chronic pain can only be achieved if research incorporates both male and female participants. It was only about two decades ago that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began requiring equal representation of men and women in the clinical trials it funds (unless, of course, single-sex participation was imperative to the topic being study). Before that, women were given medication without thorough evidence of its safety or effectiveness for them. Lack of effectiveness and unexpected side effects were sometimes the result.
While headway has been made toward sex equality in medical research, it isn’t quite complete. Often, initial research is conducted with animals or with human cells. It is still commonplace for researchers to use only male cells or animals in preclinical trials concerning chronic pain, a method that both will lead to an incomplete understanding of pain and leave women in the lurch in terms of chronic pain treatment.
This is why the NIH’s new guidelines for funded research are exciting: They require funded animal and cellular research to include both male and female samples. More effective medications and natural pain treatments for women may result from these new guidelines, although it will likely take some time before they have a noticeable effect.
Learn more about the NIH’s new guidelines and their significance at psychologyofpain.blogspot.com.