Recently I gave a talk to a group of female health professionals at the Inspiring Women in Medicine meeting entitled ‘Women in pain’. I spoke about the significant societal problem of women suffering persistent pain, which is one of the issues that comes under the banner of women’s health. Society needs women to be healthy and hence the problem of women in pain must be addressed. Fundamentally at present, society does not understand pain sufficiently to address this enormous public health matter effectively, which is where I believe we must begin: understanding pain.
If society understood pain….
- individuals would know what to do and think in order to orientate themselves towards getting better
- it would not be feared; instead the focus would be on overcoming pain
- healthcare would deliver the right messages early on so that the right actions are informed by correct beliefs about pain
- the right treatment appraoches would be employed from the outset
- there would not be the same level of suffering — the figures say: 100 milliion Americans suffer persistent pain; 20% of the population; 1:5 children
Chronic pain is a huge global health burden that costs both individuals and society enormously in terms of finances and suffering. Of course, this pervades out into family and social networks and hence those around the individual can also be suffering through their on-going provision of care. Pain is a strain on society, literally. If it were understood, this can change.
Women are reported to suffer more pain and visit their doctor more often about pain than men. Females are more likely to suffer functional pain syndromes. There are still many people, including healthcare professionals, who do not know what functional pain syndromes are or have insight into the basic biology that emerges as a range of painful problems that are very common. They include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraine and headache, back pain, fibromyalgia, pelvic pain (e.g. vulvodynia, painful bladder syndrome, dysmennorhoea) and temporomadibular dysfunction. Other regular features include anxiety, depression, a history of early life events (and later in life when a challenging situation brings about pain and suffering), perfectionism, a person who is very hard on themselves and hypermobility.
This being the case, one would expect that research into how females experience pain and why they feel more pain would be stacking up. Unfortunately this is not the case with most research done in males and male rats. Clearly that has to change alongside the overall attitudes to women in pain.
Recently the press ran with stories about how women in pain receive different care and approaches to men. Women waited longer for treatment, were less likely to receive opiates for pain (opiates are effective for acute pain — there are big issues with the use of opiates for chronic pain) and were deemed to be more emotional and hence somehow their pain was different in the sense of how it should be treated. Of course this is wrong on every level. Each person has a unique pain experience that is flavoured by a perception of threat within a certain context and enviornment, based on prior experience and beliefs of that person. Therefore, each person needs to be addressed as such and treated according to this principle, man or woman.
There are some ideas as to why men and women should experience pain differently. The most obvious is that of gender biology based primarily around hormones and the menstrual cycle. In particular there maybe an important time at the onset of menarche when sensitisation could emerge in some individuals, thereby priming them for future events such as injuries, viruses and illnesses when the systems that protect us (immune, nervous, sensorimotor, autonomic, endocrine — they work together as opposed to being in isolation) are active in the face of a perceived threat and increasingly vigorously. What the person lives are the symptoms of thee systems working including fever, pain, altered perceptions of the world, altered thinking and emotions. It can sound like these are all separate ‘reactions’ when in fact they are part of an on-going cyclical process: we think, perceive and act as a unified lived experience.
Another observation relates to empathy and how women maybe more empathetic for the purposes of caring for their children. A truly empathetic person is a caring person yet they must be careful and skilled so as not to embody their own versions of observed others’ suffering. As an example, it is not uncommon for me to feel a pain in the same place that a patient is describing their pain to me. Understanding the mechanism, I can rationalise the feeling and it will pass as I actvely change my perception — this is likely the same mechanism that underpins the change from being in pain to not being in pain in all people. I know that others I have spoken to also have this experience, which one could argue is deeply helpful as a healthcare practitioner as we seek to understand the causes of the other person’s suffering.
A described emotion that often appears within conversations about pain, particularly women in pain, is that of guilt. The reasons for expressing guilt are based around the conflict between work, home, partner and children — trying to please all but rarely pleasing or looking after oneself. Being kind to self is important in the sense that being hard on oneself can be the cause of great suffering. This is common and will almost certainly be taking the woman closer to her biological protect line, the point at which threat is perceived and enacted as a pain experience. Learning how to foster the existing compassion towards oneself then, is a typical part of a comprehensive programme for getting better. With many whom I see displaying and admitting perfectionist traits, it is not a surprise that harsh inner dialogue results in repeated negative emotions. Strung together frequently, this forms the basis for chronic stress, which in turn is the means for a pro-inflammatory state, which emerges as aches and pains, troubled tummies, headaches, mood changes, sleep issues, fertility problems and more. The reason is simply that in the pro-inflammatory state, the body is in survive mode that is great when there is a real threat. However, most of the time there is no threat, it is just something we are thinking about that triggers the same response via a prediction taht one exists.
Now, there is nothing wrong in experiencing negative emotions. We need them as much as the others. It is really about the apporpiateness of the emotions: when we feel them, how long we feel them for, how often etc etc. If we consistently think that something bad will happen or ruminate on things that have happened rather than seeing things for what they really are in this moment, then this basic survival biology will keep going. This is where mindful practice is so beneficial, cultivating awareness of existing habits that allows for a reappraisal, a space to see things for what they are and gain insight into the causes of your own suffering and others, from which you can choose a new and healthy way onward. Clearly there is much more to say about mindfulness and its benefits, in particular in the face of mcuh exciting data from studies across the world.
Whilst this blog scratches the surface, it hopefully provides some food for thought. This is a significant public health issue that we can tackle by understanding pain and applying simple and sensible compassion-driven care, which will make a huge difference. Coaching the individual woman to coach herself in a direction that is toward her desired outcome is out role as we empower individuals and allow them to realise their sense of agency in getting better. There are simple measures such as movement, exercise and mindfulness that work in synergy to create a meaningful life to be engaging and enjoyed so that when challenges arrive, they are overcome and used as learning experiences. Science, compassion and sense are at the heart of the Pain Coach approach, one that we can all adopt to change for the better. Ourselves and our patients.
The Pain Coach 1:1 Mentoring programme is for busy clinicians who wish to develop their working knowledge and to be effective in coaching people suffering chronic pain to lead meaningful and fulfilled lives. Contact us on the form below or call Jo for further information t. 07518 445493