When it comes to many common conditions that cause chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, arthritis, or lupus, it’s difficult not to notice a trend. In most instances, a majority of the people diagnosed with these conditions are women, says Dr. Peter H. Schur, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a rheumatologist and co-director of the Lupus Center at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Not only are women disproportionately affected by conditions that cause chronic pain, but they sometimes have difficulty getting a definitive diagnosis as to what is causing their pain, and receiving appropriate treatments, says Dr. Schur.
A pain-related mystery
It’s not entirely clear why women appear to be more prone to chronic pain conditions than men.
“Part of this may be genetic. There may also be biological reasons for the differences,” says Dr. Schur.
For example, hormonal differences may be at the root of some problems. Migraine headaches are sometimes triggered by fluctuating hormone levels and become more common in girls after the start of menstruation.
In addition, women may be more likely to experience traumas, such as sexual assault, which lead to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can trigger pain disorders, says Dr. Schur. PTSD is more common in women. According to the National Center for PTSD, 10% of women will be diagnosed with PTSD during their lifetime, compared with only 4% of men.
While pain conditions are more common in women, many suffer for longer than they should because of delays in diagnosis. A 2011 study by the World Endometriosis Research Foundation, for example, found that on average, a woman waited seven years from her first symptoms to a diagnosis for this common condition. (In endometriosis, tissue like that found in the lining of the uterus grows in other parts of the body, causing inflammation and scarring.)
Delays in diagnosis are also commonly associated with fibromyalgia, a condition marked by widespread pain throughout the body. It is believed to result from dysfunction in the brain’s pain response center, says Dr. Schur.
Getting help to address a pain condition
If you are experiencing chronic pain, there are a number of strategies that you can use to get help for and better manage your condition, says Dr. Schur.
Seek the underlying cause. Start with your primary care physician. If necessary, she or he can recommend a specialist to help confirm a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.
Find the right fit. Make sure that the doctor managing your pain condition has experience treating that particular condition. If you feel like the doctor isn’t responsive or willing to coordinate with your other doctors, don’t be afraid to find someone else.
Get support. Once you have a diagnosis, seek out related support groups and associations, which can help you find the resources you need to help manage your condition.
Consider cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapeutic practice is designed to help you adopt healthier thought patterns. It has been shown to reduce pain and disability by helping people to cope with pain more effectively.
Work out a treatment plan. Over-the-counter medications can be used safely to manage pain if they are timed correctly. Work with your doctor to find a regimen that works for you.
Make lifestyle improvements. While it can be difficult to maintain a regular exercise program, a sound sleep schedule, and a healthful, balanced diet when you are experiencing chronic pain, all of these strategies have been shown to help. Gradually increasing your activity level over time can help you build your stamina and avoid setbacks that may occur if you do too much too quickly.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – Mark 11:24
“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” – Proverbs 12:25
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” – Luke 12:25
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” – Matthew 7:11
“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22
Recommended contacts for prayer request and Bible study