Women in pain

Part 1: Women are more likely to suffer chronic pain: a scenario

She had suffered for at least 5 years, probably longer. A string of painful problems, one blending into the next, were seemingly taking over more and more of her body. Pain had crept into every corner of her existence, dominating her thinking, her planning and her every move.

Starting with back pain, she had seen a number of specialists and therapists. Each one gave a slightly different explanation and all promised that their method would solve her pain problem. It was not absolutely clear how the back pain began as there was no definite incident or injury. Sometimes there is an obvious event, but often it is just a rumbling ache that gradually becomes more intense and more frequent. It is then apparent that the pain exists much of the time, impacting upon day to day choices.

Life was always busy. There was never enough time. Work was demanding, home-life even more so with young, energetic children. The demands were great with little time to truly relax. When this time did arise, she went to the gym or for a run, now realising that this was not in fact the deep relaxation that was needed each day to recharge.

The self-critic echoed around her embodied mind, reverberating through her muscles and joints. That familiar tension, often in her neck and shoulders grew alongside the back pain. No one could tell her what was causing the pain because the scans were all clear except for the expected changes of someone in their early 40’s.

Waking each morning was increasingly laborious. Heavy eyes, heavy body reflecting the disturbed sleep. The kids were sleeping through now, but she was struggling to complete a full night without waking. Naturally this affected her mood and her body. She had realised the way she felt, her emotional state was impacting on her pain. This was a lightbulb moment as before she was firmly of the view that her mind was one thing and her body another. The actual experience told her something different when she listened. Pain had enforced this listening.

Frequently through the day she felt anxious. Usually there was no reason for this feeling. Already feeling that anxiety, it did not take much to push this into a state of panic, meaning that she could not think clearly. Making simple decisions was difficult in this state. It seemed like she had no control over this or her pain. The treatments offered so far were feeding this lack of control. She felt at the mercy of the system.

Now she was suffering more and more. Her back was painful more often than not so she was avoiding going out if she could, making excuses, exercise had stopped and her relationships were strained on all fronts. The migraines that she had experienced in her teens were now back, her tummy often bloated and uncomfortable and other joints were starting to hurt. This was downward spiral afoot.

The upward spiral

The picture painted is a common one. There are many variations on this theme, however the story typically follows a thread of decline as the pain and suffering increase over time. The figures suggest that women suffer chronic pain more than men, and there are some possible reasons why this is the case including greater reporting, hormones, genetics, social pressures and evolutionary biological reasons.

This is an issue for society, as is chronic pain, the number one global health burden. Society needs women to be healthy, so we must re-think our approach to pain — it has to change according to what we know. The existing biomedical model does not work for pain and is one of the reasons why pain is the problem that it is. Pain continues to be largely misunderstood in society and in healthcare, often purporting the wrong messages with dire consequences. Fortunately we have new models and a greater understanding of pain that means we can move onward in the right direction. There is great hope and reason for optimism. We can choose an upward spiral.

  • Next time I will describe what has happened so you can realise what CAN be done to overcome pain by understanding it and using the skills of well-being
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