Aug. 13, 2010 (San Diego) -- Women's chronic pain is different than men's, and health care providers and therapists need to focus on that, says an expert who talked about those differences at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
''Research has shown that women experience significant pain much more than men," says Jennifer F. Kelly, PhD, an Atlanta psychologist who often treats women who have pain.
Those aren't the only differences, she says. Women also have more recurrent pain compared to men and it's often more intense and long lasting.
''Women are also more likely to experience multiple pain conditions," she says.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to report chronic pain from cluster headaches, gout, heart disease, or other problems, Kelly says.
Pain is considered chronic if it last six months or more and if most medical treatment options have been tried and don't relieve it.
For women, there's some evidence that in many cases pain may subside after they reach menopause, suggesting hormonal links, Kelly says.
Gender Gap for Pain
Women's reactions to chronic pain are also different than are men's, Kelly has found in her research. ''Women tend to focus on the emotional aspects of pain they experience, and men tend to focus on sensory aspects."
For instance, she says, a man in pain may simply note that he hurts. But women, she says, often get emotional, worrying that they may not be able to care for their children or go to work.
Explaining the Gender Gap
Why do men and women experience chronic pain differently? Kelly says experts are not sure, but it may be the influence of sex hormones such as estrogen, or psychosocial aspects such as the way men and women are expected to react.
Differences in coping strategies may help explain the differences, too.
Treating Women's Chronic Pain
Differences persist when it comes to treatment of men's chronic pain and women's chronic pain, Kelly says. "Women do get treatment more than males," she says.
That might be because women are more likely to ask for help, as in other health care areas, she says.
Women experience different side effects of pain-relieving medications, Kelly says.
One strategy that seems to help women deal with chronic pain, Kelly has found, is to ''relabel'' the pain experience.
To do this, she suggests that women see the pain ''as something you can manage and take care of." They are advised to work on changing the negative thoughts about the pain.
Focusing on the emotional aspects of pain can actually make it feel worse, she says.
She suggests combining therapy with medications such as antidepressants only when necessary. When the pain is accompanied by depression, she says, the medications can definitely help.
Besides therapy to change thought processes and medication, Kelly suggests physical activity.
Women's Pain: Another Voice
Monika Peterson, PhD, a psychologist in Rio Rancho, N.M., says the presentation put together much information that will be of use to her.
She treats many patients with eating disorders, she says, and some also report chronic pain.
The information about gender differences, she says, "makes sense" and will help her in helping her patients with chronic pain.