If you are a fellow chronic pain warrior, then you know that despite being invisible to others, your pain is very real. The most common places women experience chronic pain in their bodies occurs in these areas at a much higher rate in women than in male chronic pain sufferers. However, according to Harvard Medical School's blog, Harvard Health Publishing, while 70 percent of chronic pain is experienced by women, 80 percent of studies are conducted on human men and male mice.
Because studies are disproportionately focused on men, women often suffer in silence. Study after study concludes that while more women suffer from chronic pain, they are taken less seriously. And, the Journal of Health Psychology published an analysis that concluded that people whose chronic pain is not believed by friends and family can experience significantly more pain than those who are taken seriously.
I have been living with chronic migraine and chronic neck and shoulder pain since I was a child. While the cause of my migraines are a mystery, my chronic neck and shoulder pain stems from an untreated childhood injury that changed the structure of the cervical bones in my neck. Because the injury went untreated for more than 10 years, my muscles work overtime to support the trauma and to hold up my neck. And, because these muscles are constantly trying to adapt to the unnatural position of my neck, the default for my neck and shoulder muscles is clenched.
From the outside I look totally normal, and unless the pain is unmanageable, I keep it to myself. If people in group settings see me rubbing salves on my neck and shoulders, and they ask me what I'm doing, I will tell them. However, I try to lead a busy and active life because I don't want the pain to control me. Whatever your opinion may be on actor, singer/songwriter, and activist Lady Gaga, her Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two is a raw — and very real — portrait of what it's like to live with chronic pain.
The emotional scenes of Gaga in Five Foot Two writhing in pain hours before having to slap on a smile and go do her job is something women with chronic pain experience every single day. Because of Gaga's high profile and her willingness to reveal a vulnerable and accessible glimpse into the life of a chronic pain sufferer, I hope that women will feel empowered vocalize their chronic pain. Because, let's face it, we've been quiet about everything long enough. While both men and women suffer from chronic pain, these are the places in the body women are most likely to experience chronic pain.
1. Women Are Twice As Likely To Have Facial Pain
The Good Body reported that a survey from the National Institutes of Health found that women are twice as likely to experience pain in the face or jaw than men. Atypical facial pain is a chronic facial pain without an identifiable cause, according to Orofacial Pain Project's website.
Most common in women and the elderly, this type of facial pain is "described as a moderate to severe ache or burning sensation that usually affects several areas of the face and mouth that do not conform to the neural distribution of the trigeminal nerve. Upon examination and workup, no abnormality is noted."
2. Migraines Are 4 Times More Common In Women
In 2016 I had a migraine that lasted more than two months. The pain was so severe that I got an MRI and actually hoped they would find a tumor because I felt like that was something I could understand and fight. When you have chronic headaches that don't have a known cause, the daily pain and frustration can be both mentally and physically debilitating. According to TIME magazine, women are four times as likely to experience chronic migraines than men.
Migraines are a persistent, mind-numbing pain that is experienced on one side of the head. They can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, visual disturbances, cognitive impairment, and other symptoms. While some studies have suggested that migraines in women are hormone related, I have had them since I was 6, so that's not the case for me. Migraines can be triggered by bright lights, certain scents, changes in weather, stress, and more.
3. It's A Literal Pain In The Neck
The neck is a big one for me. Hardly a day goes by where I don't treat my neck with ice or heat. I also rub it with peppermint and hemp-based pain salves (Sagely Naturals is one of the ones that works best for me) every day. A recent study revealed that women experience chronic neck pain at a higher rate than men, potentially due to cervical degenerative disc disease.
Science Daily reported that a study from Loyola Medicine's Pain Management Center noted that, "Cervical degenerative disc disease is a common cause of neck pain. Symptoms include stiff or inflexible neck, burning, tingling, and numbness. Pain is most prevalent when the patient is upright or moving the head."
The disorder was found in women 1.38 times more than in men. While I don't know if this is the cause of my neck pain, each time I get a massage the therapist always asks when my last massage was because my neck is in really bad shape. They're always shocked when I tell them it was the week prior.
4. Back Pain = Cancer Of The Soul
Most of my pain is concentrated in my upper back, but in the last few years I have started to experience lower back pain, too. The day before I was scheduled to fly to Iceland earlier this year my lower back was so twisted up that I was unable to stand up straight. I had to book and emergency cryotherapy appointment just so I could get on the plane.
One of the reasons women experience more back pain than men may be due to the behavior of a certain gene. "In our study we were surprised to discover that the same gene variant may actually promote chronic pain in women and suppress pain in men," Professor Johannes Gjerstad, Senior Researcher at the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health told News Medical Life Sciences.
Additionally, women might experience more chronic pain overall due how their brains are wired. Basically, the way their brains communicate with their bodies is different from how men's bodies and brains interact. So, while it might start in the brain, the pain is very real, and it's not all in your head.
While living with chronic pain is a literal pain in the neck, one of the best summaries of chronic pain is from The Conversation, and it makes me feel like someone else out there gets it. "Given that pain is perceived and processed in the brain, many of us are unable to adequately communicate what it is, how it feels and the way it destroys lives. For this reason Professor Paul Rolan, University of Adelaide, refers to it as the 'cancer of the soul.'"