Chronic pain spotlight: Women less likely to receive pain medication


In 2015, an article published in The Atlantic made waves across the web, especially in medical communities. In the piece, Joe Fassler detailed the hellish experience his wife faced in a hospital ER. While other patients twiddled their bandaged thumbs and snored as they awaited treatment, Fassler's wife writhed in agony as one of her ovaries failed, sending excruciating shockwaves of pain through her abdomen.

Hours passed without help or pain medication. Nurses shrugged away the cries from Fassler's wife Rachel, insisting on treating patients with less severe conditions because they had arrived first.

This was not an isolated incident. Every day, women with chronic or acute pain are treated less aggressively than men. But what causes this gender disparity, and what can doctors do to prevent it?

Women and men react to chronic pain differently

Though it's commonly understood that women and men may present different symptoms when affected by the same ailment, can the same be said about pain? A landmark study titled "The Girl Who Cried Pain," published in 2003, found that many doctors incorrectly assume that women are naturally more resistant to pain due to their capacity for childbirth. However, the research indicated that women may actually experience and report more frequent and greater levels of pain.

Nevertheless, women are more likely to be less well treated for pain than men. Aside from cultural bias or unconsciously sexist views of female chronic pain, there may be another reason doctors treat the sexes differently.

A study published in PLoS One found that, when both sexes experience an identical level of pain, women tend to report higher activity levels, social support and pain acceptance than men. Additionally, men tend to report more frequent mood disturbances, lower activity levels and higher rates of kinesiophobia - the fear of moving.

Does the treatment of chronic pain come down to a competition of which sex complains the most? Many researchers would claim clinician bias is more to blame.

Women are less likely to receive pain medication than men.Women are less likely to receive pain medication than men.

Women are treated for pain less aggressively than men

Even when gender-specific diagnoses are excluded, women still receive less pain treatment than men. A study published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine found that, when both sexes exhibit similar pain scores, women are less likely to receive analgesia or opiates. The study also revealed that women wait an average of 16 minutes longer to receive pain medication, compared to men.

This clearly isn't the fault of the patients for not speaking up. Doctors often mistakenly believe that women's pain is caused by emotional distress, not physical causes, even when clinical tests show that the pain is real, according to researchers from McMaster University.

How doctors can close the chronic pain gender gap

Self-assessment is a key way that doctors can avoid gender bias in the treatment of chronic pain. Stepping back and reflecting on the course of treatment may reveal unconscious bias against female patients.

Women are not more immune to pain than men. It's a simple phrase, and easy to remember. It may be the key to treating every chronic pain patient with equal care and compassion.

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