Tiiu Leek's pain began suddenly nearly a decade ago, upending her successful career as a television newscaster for KCLA in Los Angeles.
"I got this intense burning pain in the right groin and it did not go away," said the now 61-year-old. "It was as if someone had taken a hot iron and simply put it in my body on a nerve."
"It was a two-and-a-half year nightmare," she said. "I had to stop working – I couldn't even sit at the news desk because of the hot, searing pain and pins and needles going in my vagina and upper thighs."
Pain affects more than 116 million Americans annually and is a major cause of work disability and one of the most common reasons for taking medication, according to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report.
Of those Americans, about 50 million are women, according Campaign to End Chronic Pain in Women.
Today, a new study in the Journal of Pain reports that women seeking medical care for a wide range of medical problems in the hospital or clinics at Stanford University School of Medicine reported higher pain intensity, on average, compared with men with these same diagnoses.
Women reported more intense pain than men in 14 of 47 disease categories. Men did not report more intense pain in any category. Women with musculoskeletal disorders such as back, neck and joint pain, sinusitis and even high blood pressure reported more intense pain then men with these conditions.
Authors cautioned that this study cannot determine whether pain is actually experienced more intensely by women or whether women simply communicate better with their health care providers about pain.
But many other medical experts are skeptical about the Stanford study. They say the authors didn't account for the possibility that if many women had additional diseases that caused pain, it could actually be the other diseases, and not their gender, which is responsible for the women having more pain than men.
"It's a flawed study," said Dr. Lloyd Saberski, medical director of the Advanced Diagnostic Pain Treatment Centers at Yale University. "Just how accurate is the data collected? Probably not too accurate."
He said the study was "dangerous" and potentially misleading and adds "nothing" to doctors' understanding of pain. Researchers did not control for factors such as coexisting depression and disease severity, he said.
Dr. Timothy Collins, assistant clinical professor of neurology at Duke University Medical Center, said researchers should have added this caveat: "Men consistently report lower levels of pain compared to women."
"At least in the US, there is a culture expecting men to complain less, not admit to as much pain, where women are generally allowed to express pain and emotions connected with pain," he said.
Dr. Carol Warfield, a specialist in anesthesia, critical care and pain medicine at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center agreed the study was interesting, but a "big point" was missed.
"There have been a number of reports indicating that in our society stoicism is often considered virtuous, especially in men," she said. "Therefore, men may be less likely to report high levels of pain even if they perceive them. In other words, men and women may experience the same levels of pain but women are more likely to actually admit that they have pain."