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The Shocking Number Of Women Who Put Up With Chronic Pain

It's a endemic problem we talk little about, but chronic pain affects between one third to one half of the population in the UK, according to research published in the medical journal BMJ Open. Chronic (or long-term) pain, is defined by the NHS as "pain that has lasted for three months or more" and, according to this new research, affects around 28 million adults in the UK.

Dr. Fayaz who worked on the study said its aim was to "recognise that chronic pain may be a disease in its own right." He also noted that "chronic pain was more common in female than male participants." Worldwide, women are disproportionately affected. The Campaign to End Women’s Pain cites a figure of around 50 million American women who are living with a chronic pain condition.

There is currently no concrete evidence why women suffer more than men, although medical experts have speculated that reasons such as sex hormones, brain structure, biological differences and even the gender roles expected by society may play a part.

Notable chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, M.E. and lupus all afflict more women than men. Fibromyalgia, an affliction that causes pain all over the body, affects "around seven times as many women as men." M.E (or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), which causes persistent fatigue, is estimated to affect around three times as many women as men. Lupus, described by the NHS as having symptoms of "fatigue, rashes and joint pain" also has a disproportionate ratio, with 90% of reported cases being in women.

Last year Selena Gomez boosted the profile of lupus when she revealed that she had been diagnosed with the condition. In May this year she stated that she would donate part of the profits from her Revival tour towards Lupus research. In spite of notable sufferers, however, chronic pain conditions continue to be underfunded, under-researched; and those most affected by this are women.

So why are so many women putting up with chronic pain?

One reason Dr. Fayaz suggests is that pain is often unquantifiable. He says, "I think there is a reluctance to talk about pain because it isn’t as visible or as measurable as other conditions."

The Campaign to End Women’s Pain theorises that the fact that the majority of sufferers are female may actually be part of the problem, saying: "Evidence suggests a discriminatory pattern in the medical care provided to women with chronic pain."

In recent years there have been many allegations of sexism concerning the medical treatment of women’s pain. Last year in The Atlantic, Joe Fassler wrote a piece titled "How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously", about his experience of his wife’s symptoms being overlooked when she went into casualty with an ovarian torsion. Radhika Sanghani in The Telegraph last year reported on the idea of "lady’s pains", and the perceived inadequacy of some doctors to recognise female pain, while in 2014 Judy Foreman wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the injustice of millions of American women living in chronic pain.
Honor, 25, is one of these millions of women living in chronic pain in the UK after an accident on holiday three years ago. She says, "I think that sometimes the most debilitating thing about pain and especially chronic pain is its invisibility. It grinds you down and makes you question who you are as a person." She adds that "it’s really hard being told by a doctor that there is nothing medically wrong when you know and feel otherwise. It leaves you wondering if it is in your head."

A 2014 survey of 2,000 women carried out by the National Pain Report also revealed the problem with chronic pain is "invisibility". Around 75% of those surveyed were told at least once by a doctor that "nothing could be done for them and that they would just have to live with chronic pain," while 65% said that they felt doctors took their pain less seriously because they were a woman. 51% reported being told that "you look good, so you must be feeling better" and 45% that "the pain is all in your head."

Sonya Chowdhury, CEO of Action For M.E., a charity which raises awareness and funds for the illness emphasises the condition’s impact on women. She says, "Four times more women than men live with the complex and disabling symptoms of M.E.; we know that a considerable majority of individuals with M.E. are forced to stop or reduce paid work… and one in five told us that it has affected their decision to have children."

In 2005, my mother and my younger brother fell ill with M.E.. I watched them struggle to have their condition recognised. My mother one day managed to get out of bed to attend a meeting for a disabled parking permit only to be told that if she was well enough to turn up unaided she didn’t need it; but she spent the next month in bed because of the effort it had taken her to attend.

It gave me a small insight into the plight of those living with chronic pain conditions such as M.E., which often permit the sufferer enough ‘good days’ for society to believe that they have recovered or were never ill in the first place. Such attitudes perpetuate the suffering of millions, and particularly millions of women worldwide.

Women suffering with chronic pain endure the stigma attached to all hidden illnesses, which is that it’s "in their heads" and "not real"; and yet it affects very real decisions such as whether to start a family or not. Myths surrounding women’s experience of pain persists from ideas that women exaggerate or make up pain, to notions that they have a higher pain threshold than men (they don’t).

Dr. Fayaz says, "I hope our research gives a voice to people – especially to women who appear to be disproportionally affected." Indeed, this study not only platforms the voiceless but also illuminates the scale of the problem in the UK alone; and shows just how much ground there is still to be covered, particularly when it comes to treating women in chronic pain in this country.