The Naked Truth About Women and Pain: Finding the Right Treatment
Chronic Pain Epidemic
In the months before her wedding, Ashlee Williams should have been focusing on the big day. Instead, the 28-year-old kindergarten teacher from Atlanta was often curled up in bed with pain caused by endometriosis, a disease that creates growths and lesions in the pelvic cavity and abdomen. Over the last 14 years, Ashlee has tried numerous treatments, including surgery, but the lesions always return. "I can barely remember a time when I wasn't in pain," she says. "It's been hell."
Ashlee is one of the 50 million Americans who suffer from the never-ending agony of chronic pain. Once thought to be a side effect of other illnesses, chronic pain is now considered a serious health condition, one that costs the country an estimated $100 billion in lost workdays and medical care. Today, there are almost 1,900 board-certified pain practitioners in the United States -- more than ever before.
In addition, chronic pain affects women more than men. According to the American Chronic Pain Association, 61 percent of all chronic pain sufferers are female. Yet many doctors still don't take women's complaints about pain seriously. "Some physicians have the impression that because women go through childbirth they can tolerate more," says Roger B. Fillingim, PhD, an associate professor of community dentistry and behavioral sciences at the University of Florida College of Dentistry. "Others assume that women are exaggerating their discomfort -- that it's all in their heads."
But new research shows that living with constant pain can have serious health consequences: Every year that a person suffers can cause the brain to shrink; after about 10 years, it can shrink by as much as 11 percent, potentially diminishing memory and the ability to process information. According to studies at Northwestern University, these changes can be permanent. Worse still, such changes in the brain may make the pain less responsive to treatment. "Getting help quickly is imperative," says A. Vania Apkarian, PhD, an associate professor of physiology at Northwestern University.
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