Women make up the vast majority of the nation's 116 million chronic pain sufferers, yet doctors frequently dismiss their complaints as all in their heads, sending them on years-long searches for relief, a patient told senators today.
Although studies have observed women's chronic pain is more frequent, more severe and longer-lasting than men's, many women still are told "their problem isn't real. Your pain doesn't exist, you must be imagining this," Christin Veasley testified.
In her case, she said, back and neck pain from an old car accident became "an unwanted companion for 21 years." Since 2008, migraine headaches, facial pain and jaw pain piled on more misery, she said.
"From the moment I open my eyes each morning, the first thing I feel is pain," said Veasley, executive director of the non-profit National Vulvodynia Association, which aims to help the one in four American women and "countless adolescents" suffering invisible but excruciating genital pain at some point during their lives.
Veasley, who has recovered from vulvodynia she had in her 20s, testified on behalf of the Chronic Pain Research Alliance. She said she hopes Congress will lead the way in enacting "long overdue change to help us regain our quality of life and ability to contribute to society."
She was among five witnesses appearing at a Capitol Hill hearing on "Pain in America: Exploring Challenges to Relief," called by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The hearing followed publication last year of an Institute of Medicine report that included recommendations for improving diagnosis, treatment and research into chronic pain, as well as boosting health professionals' recognition of both the problem and its toll.
The cost of chronic pain exceeds $600 billion each year – more than cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined, the IOM report found. Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts several months or more, according to testimony from Dr. Lawrence A. Tabak, principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health. It may crop up as persistent pain after an injury heals, or arise as a debilitating symptom of long-term diseases like arthritis, diabetes or cancer.
Often, Tabak said, people suffer from chronic pain associated with more invisible conditions like fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headaches or jaw pain -- all more common in women than men.
"The majority of my patients are women," said Dr. Timothy A. Collins, a neurologist with the Duke Pain and Palliative Care Clinic in Durham, N.C., who was not involved in the hearing.
He said migraine headache is "three times as common in women compared to men." Fibromyalgia "appears more common in women than men," and "a number of pain conditions are directly caused by abuse (sexual and physical) and unfortunately, women are more commonly on the abused side of the equation."
Collins said U.S. culture encourages women "to voice feelings, emotions and physical complaints" while generally discouraging such complaints in men.
"This tends to affect the perception of the care provider -- if there are significant emotional issues, the other complaints may become attributed to the emotional complaints," he said.
In other words if a woman with chronic pain also suffers from depression, a doctor may attribute all of her complaints "to being depressed, so no further evaluation or treatment is needed," Collins said.
Women with chronic pain also are subject to some of the same gender discrimination that contributes to their under-treatment for cardiac disease and or arthritis. For example, a 1999 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that white women (and black men) were 40 percent less likely to be referred for potentially life-saving cardiac surgery.
A 2008 study published by the Canadian Medical Association found doctors were more likely to recommend knee replacement surgery to male patients with knee arthritis than to female patients, suggesting that gender discrimination might contribute to women being three times less likely to undergo knee replacement than men.
In addition, when it comes to doctors' decisions about managing pain, a February 2003 study of doctors' pain management knowledge and attitudes, published in The Journal of Pain, found that women were less likely than men to receive "optimal treatment" for post-surgical or cancer-related pain. That study also found doctors set lesser goals for chronic pain relief than for acute pain and cancer pain.
Chronic pain is a "silent, hidden and poorly treated epidemic as real as (the) polio epidemic," Dr. William Maixner, director of the Center for Neurosensory Disorders at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told the senators.
Worse still, treatments don't "fully alleviate Americans' pain," said Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, dean of Stanford University medical school and chairman of the IOM committee that released its chronic pain report last year. Among its findings: "pain management is a moral imperative," and "chronic pain can be a disease in itself."
Pizzo also noted that the figure of 116 million U.S. chronic pain sufferers is an underestimate, because it excludes children, the military, and residents of nursing homes and chronic care institutions.
For the most part, the training of medical students and medical residents hasn't included management of chronic pain, Pizzo said. Reducing the impact of pain and suffering in this country will require "cultural transformation in how pain is perceived and judged both by people with pain and by the health care providers who help care for them," Pizzo said.