Women experience pain differently from men and are disproportionately affected by many of the chronic pain conditions for which limited treatment options exist. Yet the way we have historically treated pain in America does not acknowledge these facts.
Until we recognize the gender bias in pain research and care, more women will continue to live with painful conditions for which there are no effective treatments. It is paramount that federal lawmakers and regulators advance incentives that bring safe and innovative medicines to women that treat the underlying cause of painful conditions, not just the pain itself.
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The Society for Women’s Health Research is working to raise awareness and increase research and innovation around two pain conditions that predominantly affect women: migraine and endometriosis. Migraine is three times more common in women than men, and women account for 80 percent of direct and indirect costs associated with migraine in the United States, upward of $78 billion each year.
Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 American women, and with symptoms such as infertility, chronic pelvic pain, back pain and intestinal problems, the disease can negatively affect all aspects of a woman’s daily life, including her physical health, emotional well-being and productivity. Endometriosis is also costly, with estimated U.S. health care expenditures reaching $69.4 billion per year.
Despite our growing understanding of the burden facing women with these types of painful conditions, women are less likely than men to receive effective treatments and more likely to report more severe, frequent and long-lasting pain. In addition, women’s pain is often dismissed by doctors, leading to disparities in pain management.
Historical biases in our society have clearly resulted in barriers in treatment for women’s pain, but they are also the reason that the underlying biological mechanisms behind women’s and men’s differing pain experiences remain largely unknown.
Until about 25 years ago, essentially all health research was conducted on men; women were actively excluded from participating in most clinical trials. Pain research, in particular, has been dominated by male animals and humans, limiting our understanding of the unique needs of women who live with conditions like migraine and endometriosis.
But recent research and innovations provide hope that we can address these barriers that exist for women in pain. After a decade of inactivity on endometriosis, a new therapy option was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2018 with support from two studies involving nearly 2,000 women. Innovation elsewhere is paving the way for better diagnoses for women who suffer from this condition.
For patients who are managing endometriosis and other painful conditions, these solutions offer the possibility of a more productive, higher-quality life. But innovation must not come at the expense of the unique needs of women.
We need to ensure that women are represented in future policies and clinical trials. Only then can we recognize and understand how women experience pain compared to men.
Patients for whom current treatment options don’t work need and deserve access to new treatments. The ability to bring safe and effective treatments out of research labs and into women’s lives will improve the quality of life for many women and reduce the burden of pain on individuals, families, employers and our nation’s health care system.
Only by taking a patient-focused approach can we hope to start closing the research gap in women’s health and find effective innovations that address the disease, not just the pain symptoms. The tide is turning, and there’s reason to be hopeful.
Amy M. Miller, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research.
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