By Pat Anson, Editor
Women who complain or focus negatively on their pain – a psychological condition known as catastrophizing -- not only feel chronic pain more intensely, they are more likely than men to be prescribed opioids for the same condition, according to a new study.
"Our research underscores how psychological factors such as negative thoughts or emotions have the capacity to influence how we experience pain and the likelihood that someone will be taking prescribed opioids," said Beth Darnall, PhD, a clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and senior author of the study published in the journal Anesthesiology.
"The findings suggest that pain intensity and catastrophizing contribute to different patterns of opioid prescribing for male and female patients, highlighting a potential need for examination and intervention in future studies."
Previous studies have found that pain catastrophizing can have a powerful influence on a patient’s sensory perception, and may magnify the intensity of chronic pain by as much as 20 percent.
In their retrospective study, Darnall and her colleagues analyzed clinical data from nearly 1,800 adult chronic pain patients at a large outpatient pain treatment center. Most of the patients said they were prescribed at least one opioid medication.
For women, pain catastrophizing was strongly associated with having an opioid prescription, even when there were relatively low levels of pain. Pain intensity was a stronger predictor of opioid prescriptions in men.
"Our findings show that even relatively low levels of negative cognitive and emotional responses to pain may have a great impact on opioid prescribing in women," said lead author Yasamin Sharifzadeh, a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
It was Sharifzadeh who first sought to study the relationship between pain catastrophizing and opioid prescriptions as a third-year undergraduate student at Stanford, where the research was conducted. She says more research is needed to understand sex differences in pain so clinicians can develop better treatments for both men and women.
“If physicians are aware of these gender-specific differences, they can tailor their treatment,” she said. “When treating chronic pain patients — especially women — they should analyze pain in its psychological aspect as well as its physical aspect.”
Previous studies have found that women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription pain relievers, be given higher doses, and to use them for longer periods. Women may also become dependent on medication more quickly than men, according to the CDC.