Joint pain has been shown to affect women more profoundly, and for longer periods, than their male counterparts. Worse still, women seem less able-bodied to cope with the aches and pains of joint conditions than men. While we are just as strong and resilient in other ways—if not more so—the question nonetheless arises: what gives when it comes to women and joint pain?
Soreness in and around our joints is a problem that most people encounter at one point or another. Hitting the tennis court a bit too rigorously or over-exerting ourselves with our children can do it. However, medical research indicates that women are more often affected by chronic joint pain than men.
Indeed, according to an estimate issued by the CDC both arthritis and chronically painful joints affect upwards of 70 million Americans. Of this number, an astounding 41 million are women. Struck by the gendered gap that separates those affected by joint pain, researchers have honed in on several factors that make women both more susceptible to pain and less able to cope with it.
Among the contributing factors are hormone variations and our distinct physiological ability to deal with pain.
Joint Pain in Women: A Statistical Analysis
The unfortunate reality is that approximately 27 million Americans currently suffer from AO, or osteoarthritis. Of this group, the majority—at 60 percent—is comprised of women. Another subgroup of arthritis is Rheumatoid arthritis: a debilitating condition that affects roughly three times more women than it does men.
In addition to arthritis there are a host of other autoimmune conditions that are not only linked to, but which have been proven to cause, chronic joint pain. These autoimmune conditions include lupus, scleroderma, and multiple sclerosis. When we look at how chronically painful autoimmune conditions divide, between men and women, it is no wonder that joint pain is more prominent amongst the female sex.
To elucidate, compared with men women are twice as likely to develop MS, three times more likely to have scleroderma and a whopping nine times as likely to suffer from Lupus.
The Rise and Fall of Estrogen: Disrupting Women’s Ability to Cope With Joint Pain?
Dr. Tarvez Tucker is a pain specialist who operates out of the Pain Clinic at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. With his background and wealth of medical experience, Tucker was able to shed some much needed light on the issue of how and why women experience joint pain.
The act of childbirth alone attests to the fact that women are able to withstand extremely high levels of pain. But this does not negate the fact that they also feel pain intensely, and often for mysterious reasons. Tucker suggests that female hormone levels have an important bearing on how they experience pain.
For example, women who suffer from OA, RA, lupus and fibromyalgia claim that they experience joint pain much more intensely right before they begin menstruating. This coincides (not so coincidentally) with the sharp decrease in estrogen levels that occurs just prior to a woman’s period.
Dr. Tucker explains this trend: “Estrogen is believed to be protective against pain. It peaks during pregnancy, probably to protect women from the pain of childbirth.” Thus while estrogen helps ward off pain, in crucial moments, so too does a woman’s lack of estrogen impede her ability to endure joint pain.
The Brain-Pain Interaction
Women’s hormones are only one dimension affecting how they experience pain. Another fundamental dimension is their brains. After all, brains and the chemicals they produce fundamentally control our responses to pain.
Dr. Patrick Wood, doctor and pain researcher at Louisiana State University, expands on the brain-pain interaction: “Studies have found that females release less of the brain chemical dopamine in response to painful stimulation.” And without sufficient levels of dopamine, endorphins—which naturally dull or soften our experience of pain—cannot work the way they ought to. Ultimately it seems that women’s brains invite pain in ways that men’s brains do not.
Finding the Right Elixir: How Women Should Approach Medications for Joint Pain
While men and women are often prescribed the same types of pain medications, it is crucial to remember that our bodies handle these medications very differently. A prime example of this relates to how women’s hormone levels vary significantly over the course of a month. The ebb and flow of our hormones in turn affects the amount of pain medication being circulated throughout our bloodstreams.
If pain persists on your current dosage of medication, you should consult a doctor and see about altering your intake. It is also worth noting that women’s digestive systems do not work as quickly as those of men. For this reason, it often takes longer for pain medication to take effect in women. Dr. Tucker instructs women to “be aware of these factors, ask the right questions” so that their doctors have the best possible chance of coping with joint pain.