Women have been stereotyped as complainers, endless talkers, damsels in distress…the weaker sex. But given the extensive research and studies made on women-related diseases, some might conclude that women have, indeed, more reason to complain about.
Infertility, endometriosis, mammography, breast diseases, vaginal diseases, vulvar disease, osteoporosis, glaucoma, childbearing, and menopause — these are just some of the diseases or conditions that affect millions of women around the world. Scientists who were investigating gender differences in pain have found that, compared to men, women experience more pain throughout the course of their lifetime. They also experience pain more severely and for longer periods of time compared to men.
Some of the most astounding research concerns the medications used to treat pain. This work calls into question the age-old pain management practice of “one size (or one drug) fits all.” For example, a series of studies have shown that morphine-like drugs called kappa-opioids, produce significantly greater pain relief in women than in men. These drugs work through receptors in the central nervous system. There are multiple types of opioid receptors which are kappa, mu, delta, and sigma. The mu and kappa categories are the two major classes thought to be responsible for the analgesic effect. Kappa-opioids are not as commonly used as other narcotic pain medications. Drugs that work on the mu-receptors are the most commonly prescribed pain relief drugs of that class. However, these drugs have side effects such as nausea, itching, constipation, among others.
Other studies have shown that common pain relievers do less for women than for men. In a study of experimentally-induced pain, ibuprofen, the key ingredient in Advil, Motrin, and other over-the-counter analgesics known as NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) were less effective in providing pain relief for women than men. Ibuprofen is the most common medication taken to treat headaches. Examples of primary headaches are migraine headaches, cluster headaches and tension headaches.
“Tension-type” headaches, or tension headaches, are the most common type of “head pain.” About 30% to 80% of adults occasionally experience this kind of headache. These headaches are sometimes called stress headaches, muscle contraction headaches, daily headaches, or chronic non-progressive headaches. Tension headaches are more common among women than men and occurs two to three times more frequently among women.
Aside from tension headaches, there are many painful diseases and injuries that affect women. Osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease is more common among women over the age of fifty-five, and women may suffer from a more severe form of this disease. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) occurs two and a half times more often among women, and it may also affect them more severely. Women athletes experience knee injuries two to eight times more frequently than their male counterparts. This is particularly true for tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Osteoporosis affects both sexes, but women develop it at a much younger age and in far greater numbers because of hormonal differences.
Even when men and women suffer from the same illness, the accompanying symptoms may be totally different. We don’t know why these differences exist but a wide range of scientific studies show that the sexes differ on nearly every level. From the molecular to the psychological, from the basic genetic codes to the hormones, biology, physiology, and the overall functioning of the immune response systems.
So which is the weaker sex when it comes to pain? It may be hard to say since women and men have different experiences with pain. But a more interesting twist to this issue is that while women experience pain more severely, they still have a longer life span than men.