More than 100 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain – more than cancer, diabetes and heart disease combined. Chronic pain is largely underestimated and misunderstood, especially among people who don’t suffer from it. I describe it to my patients as revved up pain signals trapped in the central nervous system, firing haphazardly and sometimes without a known cause. As you can imagine, pain signals unbridled and tangled in the brain wreak havoc on a person, and I’ve seen it happen to countless patients, especially women.
Chronic pain is our nation’s biggest health problem, and, shockingly, it’s largely a female problem. We are twice as likely to have multiple sclerosis, two to three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and four times more likely to have chronic fatigue syndrome. Between 75 and 90 percent of people with fibromyalgia are women. Actually, 75 percent of all autoimmune disease patients are women, yet women still tend to be disproportionately undertreated or mistreated for pain.
Why the discrepancy? Women experience more pain due to a variety of factors, including hormones, brain chemistry and genetics. Testosterone, for example, may protect against pain, while estrogen may enhance it. The irony here is that, even though women experience more pain, two-thirds of women believe men are the ones who carry the pain burden, and that misperception can cause some to hold off on seeking treatment.
If you are a woman struggling with chronic pain, here are five steps to take today to make sure you are getting the treatment you deserve.
- Speak up. It’s nearly impossible to treat chronic pain without a strong patient-provider relationship. Tell your provider exactly how you are feeling and lay out your concerns during your very first visit. Share your entire personal history, and include any personal risk factors, like alcohol or drug abuse, sleep trouble or depression.
- Be specific. Describe your pain as best you can, using as many details as possible. Consider keeping a pain journal documenting when you feel pain and the scale of your discomfort. Even constant pain has subtle nuances that can influence treatment.
- Demand attention. Nurse practitioners outscore other providers in patient satisfaction, in part because we can spend more time listening and interacting with patients. Find a provider who is willing to roll up their sleeves and get to the bottom of your pain problems, instead of just checking the boxes. Chronic pain deserves a provider willing to give their undivided attention.
- Validate your concerns. Too often people are skeptical of chronic pain because it is invisible, but that does not make it any less real. If you find you are constantly having to defend your pain to friends, family and coworkers, you need clinical backup. Find a provider who helps to validate your concerns and then use their expertise to educate important people in your life about your condition.
- Ask questions. There is by no means a one-pill-fits all solution to chronic pain, and sometimes, medication isn’t even the answer. Yes, opioids like morphine, hydrocodone and naloxone are sometimes used, but steroid injections, acupuncture, cognitive therapies, massage and other treatments can be just as effective. Nurse practitioners are trained in the latest treatment options and can prescribe a plan that make sense for you – and only you.
Chronic pain is taking a toll on women in this country. For those who suffer, the pain is enough of a burden without having to navigate cultural stigmas and misinformation, yet still, women often suffer in silence. September is National Pain Awareness Month and the perfect reminder that no one should have to live through chronic pain alone. Take the time to find a provider who will work with you to treat the pain and at the same time empower you to live a healthier, happier life.
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