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A Royal Pain: How and Why Chronic Pain Affects Women Greater than Men

A recent study conducted by Georgia State University found that women experienced higher incidences of chronic, inflammatory pain than men and that pain medications like morphine are thereby a less effective pain management tool. According to the Institute of Medicine, more than 100 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain, with women compromising the bulk of that. The American Chronic Pain Association defines chronic pain as an "ongoing or recurrent pain, lasting beyond the usual course of acute illness or injury or more than 3 to 6 months, and which adversely affects the individual’s well-being." [1] For many women, chronic pain can present in a variety of ways including fibromyalgia, arthritis, headaches and even temporomandibular joint disorder, more commonly known as TMJ. The Georgia State University Study sheds new light on how women are suffering substantially more than their male counterparts and why that just might be.

It’s well-documented that women don’t respond as well as men to opioids, like morphine. As such, Georgia State University researchers found that when "microglia, the brain's resident immune cells, were blocked, female response to opioid pain medication improved and matched the levels of pain relief normally seen in males."[2] Studies show that women generally require twice the amount of morphine as men to produce a comparable level of pain relief. For individuals who suffer from chronic pain, quite frequently, the go-to course of treatment is prescription pain medication. But Dr. David Buck, a neuromuscular dentist in Washington state, believes that treating and healing the source of the chronic pain is much more effective than merely treating the symptoms, i.e. the pain itself. He treats many patients who suffer from chronic pain as a result of TMJ, and he’s quite familiar and uncomfortable with modern medicine’s current approach to treating the condition. With prescription drugs ranking as the second-most abused drug category, Buck averseness is warranted. Simply treating the pain itself doesn’t solve the underlying cause and could pose a whole host of additional issues. Buck uses an analogy to explain to patients why treating the symptoms alone isn’t effective.   

"Let’s say you’re driving down the road, and your check engine light comes on," Buck said. "One solution is to cut the cables to that light. Now the problem’s gone away. Another way is to actually go to the dealer and have a diagnosis for what’s really going on and what needs to be taken care of. You can either cut the cables to the light or you can do the right thing and go to the dealer."

Buck specializes in treating TMJ patients, so he understands how in the medical field, it’s traditionally been tricky to treat the condition. That’s due mostly to the mainstream philosophy and understanding, or lack thereof, surrounding the disorder.  

"There’s a whole separate set of beliefs about TMJ that it’s basically a social, psychosocial disorder that’s periodic and episodic and that it will go away," Buck said. "[The truth is,] it’s a fundamental disruption of the organic physiology of what’s going on. Something is going on, and the body’s reacting."

For Buck, his understanding of TMJ allows him to treat the source of his patients’ chronic pain instead of writing out a prescription. Because woman are at a greater disposition to experience higher rates of chronic pain, it stands to reason that Buck’s approach does more good than harm. Georgia State University’s recent findings "that microglia are more active in brain regions involved in pain processing" can likely explain how and why "the incidence rates for various chronic pain syndromes are significantly higher in females than males."2 And it just may lead more patients suffering from TMJ-related chronic pain to doctors like Buck who treat the problem at its core.    


[1] "Glossary." American Chronic Pain Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017. 

[2] Georgia State University. "Sex differences in brain activity alter pain therapies." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 March 2017. 

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