Billie Jean King won the battle of the sexes when she beat Bobby Riggs in a winner-take-all tennis match in 1973, but chances are, if she had sustained an injury in the match, things might have taken a different turn.
That’s because men and women experience pain differently, with women being the losers.
Research finds that not only do women feel pain more often and more intensely than men, but they are much more likely than men to receive sedatives (rather than pain medication) to treat it because their pain is dismissed as psychological. One study found that women who endured coronary bypass surgery were only half as likely to receive painkillers as men who underwent the same procedure.
The fact that 70 percent of the people affected by chronic pain are women does not make this gender bias easier.
Here are four pain conditions that affect women more than men, along with proven ways to help yourself, if no one else will. Sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands.
1. Musculoskeletal pain
The National Institutes of Health reviewed research into several types of musculoskeletal pain including back pain, whole body pain, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. It found that women experienced more chronic pain than men, especially with age, when they had more compression fractures and vertebral changes than men. Read more about Back Pain Is Not a Normal Part of Aging.
Massage at your fingertips
While a visit to a massage therapist can help, there’s a more convenient and affordable way to zap your pain: with a hand-held massager, like this Deep Tissue Massager from Wahl. One of the most powerful massagers on the market, it can treat muscle pain naturally, through a combination of interchangeable heads and variable intensity control. And it’s powerful enough to treat pain in large muscle groups or pinpoint specific problem areas. The benefit of massage comes from relieving tension and enhancing blood flow, which causes muscles to relax.
Migraines can affect anyone, really, but they’re more common in women. In fact, three times as many women live with migraines as men—and a large reason is the fluctuation of estrogen. Migraines are common around the time of menstrual cycles, when estrogen levels rapidly drop. During pregnancy, when estrogen levels rise, migraines ease off or even disappear for many women. During perimenopause (the years leading up to menopause), they may come back fiercely and frequently due to the fluctuations of estrogen. Women with headaches report more pain than men and pain that is longer-lasting and more likely to induce nausea and vomiting.
Daily nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or naproxen sodium can help reduce or prevent migraines, as can triptans (like frovatriptan). But if you don’t want to take medication, there are lifestyle ways to help manage your migraines. One way is to retreat from your usual activities if possible, says the Mayo Clinic. Sit and relax in a dark quiet room. Apply hot or cold compresses to your head or neck to help dull the pain. Caffeine, in small amounts, can help relieve pain in its early stages as well as enhance the pain-reducing effects of acetaminophen (like Tylenol) and aspirin. Managing stress, getting adequate and good-quality sleep, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight can also be helpful. Some migraines, especially if caused by tight muscles, can benefit from massage, either through the hands of a therapist or at home.
3. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
This condition affects the large intestine and causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation (or both). It is more common in women than men, and it affects women differently. Women with IBS are more likely to suffer with fatigue, depression, anxiety and an overall lower quality of life, studies reveal. Though researchers are not entirely sure why, one reason may be related to sex hormones, which affect the stress response and mechanisms between the brain and gut.
IBS pain is managed in a combination of ways, both psychologically (like hypnosis, relaxation or meditation) and with medications (like anticholinergic agents to help relieve pain after meals or central-acting or targeted medications to block pain signals from the brain).
4. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome
TMJ syndrome is a pain originating from the jaw joint that connects your jawbone to your skull. The causes are varied: sometimes the cartilage of the joint is damaged by arthritis or becomes injured, while other times the disk erodes or moves out of alignment. Clenching or grinding your teeth can put you at risk for TMJ syndrome.
Symptoms include headaches, ear pain, jaw pain, difficulty chewing, aching facial pain or a locking of the joint (making opening and closing your mouth difficult). People with TMJ disorders can also have a clicking or grating sensation when they chew or open their mouths. One study found that women experienced these symptoms more frequently than men.
Sometimes symptoms will disappear on their own without treatment. If they don’t, TMJ disorders can be treated with pain relievers and anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants. Oral splints, mouth guards or physical therapy can be helpful, as can moist heat or cold packs. Some chiropractors and massage or physical therapists treat TMJ with trigger point massage, which can relax tense muscles contributing to the jaw ache and pain.