When it comes to chronic pain—discomfort that generally lasts three to six months or more—women have more than their fair share of it. They’re twice as likely as men to develop irritable bowel syndrome and three times more likely to suffer from migraine. Nine out of 10 people with fibromyalgia are female as are eight out of 10 patients with temperomandibular disorder (TMJ), according to a 2006 report. Women also shell out a lot more money in the quest for relief, spending nearly $13 billion on chronic pain treatments in 2008 (the most recent figures available).
Researchers don’t know exactly why the pain gender gap exists. One theory is that women may have a lower threshold for pain, partly due to hormones. They may also respond differently than men to pain medications. Another possibility: Men may just not own up to their pain in the same way women do. Whatever the reason, this much is known: “Pain is a subjective experience and though there is no way to measure it, it is very real,” says Dr. Robert N. Jamison, chief psychologist at the Pain Management Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. If you’re dogged by chronic pain, see a healthcare provider and be open about what you’re experiencing. Here, some guidelines to follow when discussing your condition to ensure you get the care you deserve.
Be specific. Don’t just say you hurt. Tell your doctor or healthcare provider what the pain feels like. Is it burning, tingling, aching, throbbing, stabbing, or shooting?
Pinpoint the pain. Rather than say “My back hurts” or “My joints are aching,” tell your provider exactly where your back hurts and which joints bother you, and when. Download the American Chronic Pain Association ‘s body chart so you can circle hot button areas. (Visit http://www.theacpa.org/default.aspx and click on “Pain Management Tools” and then “Communication Tools.”) You’ll also find a pain log and quality-of-life scale on the site. The more information you can give your doctor, the greater the likelihood she can help you.
Rate the pain. “The most common indicator of pain intensity is the zero to 10 scale,” says Jamison. “Zero means no pain and 10 means the worst possible pain.” And don’t be shy: Use descriptive words like excruciating, all-encompassing or debilitating so your doctor will better understand the magnitude of your condition.
Give a timeline. Let your doctor know when the pain started; whether it’s constant or off and on; what makes it flare up; and whether certain activities make it better or worse.
Share the personal toll. If the pain is so bad that you’re depressed or anxious, tell your doctor. Ditto if you are tossing and turning all night because you hurt. And let your doctor know if you’re having trouble with everyday activities, be it climbing stairs, taking a walk or doing housework.
Chart the treatments. Tell your doctor about medications or therapies—from ibuprofen to massage to heat—you have tried and whether or not they have helped.
Be your own advocate. “If your healthcare provider doesn’t understand what you’re saying or dismisses your problem, look for someone else,” Jamison says.