Young Women Abused as Children Have More Pain  

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Young adult women with a history of being physically or emotionally abused as children report higher levels of pain than women not abused in childhood, according to a new study.

The link between child abuse and chronic pain in adulthood is a controversial one, but there are a number of studies that have found an association between the two. This was one of the first to follow abused adolescents into adulthood.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center recruited 477 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 and followed them up to age 19. About half the girls experienced neglect or maltreatment, such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse that was substantiated by child welfare records. The other half acted as a control group.

Five years later, researchers contacted the women again and surveyed them about their pain as young adults. Those who were maltreated as children reported higher pain intensity, a greater number of pain locations, and were more likely to have experienced pain in the previous week than those who were not mistreated as children.

The young women who experienced post-traumatic stress as teenagers had the highest risk of pain.


"Child maltreatment and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) in adolescence work together to increase risk of pain in young adulthood," says lead author Sarah Beal, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "The link isn't simple and could be due to an increase in inflammation, maintaining a state of high-alert in activating stress responses, or a number of other psychological or behavioral mechanisms.

“Women with a child maltreatment history were significantly more likely to experience pain and report a higher number of pain locations in young adulthood. Furthermore, among women who experienced any pain, those who were maltreated reported somewhat higher pain intensity. Results also showed that elevated PTSS during adolescence were associated with pain in adulthood and more widespread pain.”

Beal, who reported her findings in the journal Pain, says identifying and treating childhood trauma at an early age could help prevent chronic pain from developing in adulthood.  

“By intervening to address stress symptoms and poor coping following maltreatment, we may be able to reduce the impact of maltreatment on young adult health sequelae -- at least for pain,” said Beal.

Previous research has found an association between childhood trauma and chronic illness in adults.

A recent study found that women who experienced physical or emotional abuse as children have a significantly higher risk of developing lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease.

Another study found that adults who experienced adversity or trauma as children were more likely to have mood or sleep problems as adults -- which in turn made them more likely to have physical pain.

And a large survey found that nearly two-thirds of adults who suffer from migraines experienced emotional abuse as children.

Women Most at Risk for ‘iPad Neck’

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have neck and shoulder pain and regularly use an iPad or tablet device, there’s a good chance the two are connected. Especially if you’re a young woman.

A recent study of over 400 university students, alumni and staff found that 60 percent have persistent pain in the neck and upper shoulders – often caused by slouching or bending to watch their iPads or tablet computers. Over two-thirds (68%) said they experienced symptoms while using their tablets.

"Such high prevalence of neck and shoulder symptoms, especially among the younger populations, presents a substantial burden to society," said lead author Szu-Ping Lee, PhD, a physical therapy professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. His study was published last week in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

The top risk factor for “iPad neck” was surprising. Women were twice as likely as men to experience neck and shoulder pain during tablet use.

“Our study revealed that females and individuals with current musculoskeletal symptoms were more likely to be at risk for neck and shoulder symptoms,” Lee wrote.

“Certain postures during use were also identified as important risk factors, specifically sitting without back support and with the tablet in lap were significantly associated with symptoms during use.”



The most frequently reported symptoms were stiffness, soreness or aching pain in the neck, upper back, shoulder, arms, hands or head. Most of those surveyed (55%) reported moderate discomfort, but 10 percent said their symptoms were severe and 15 percent said it affected their sleep. Less than half (46%) said they stopped using the devices when they felt discomfort.

Lee says the findings concern him, especially given the growing popularity of tablets, e-book readers, and other devices for personal, school and business purposes. At PNN, we know that about 10 percent of our readers use iPads or tablets.

Almost half of the tablet users surveyed use their devices for three or more hours each day. Flexing the neck forward for long periods of time puts pressure on your spine, causing neck and shoulder pain. Sedentary behavior and bad posture while reading are also contributing factors.

Researchers say many students sit cross-legged on the floor when studying on their tablets. Interestingly, women were far more likely (77%) to use their tablets while sitting on the floor than men (23%).

Lee offered these tips to avoid iPad neck:

  • Sit in a chair with back support.
  • Use a posture reminder device -- small, wearable devices that beep to alert you when you're slouching.
  • Place your iPad on a stand (rather than a flat surface) and attach a keyboard to achieve a more upright posture.
  • Exercise to strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles.

"Using these electronic devices is becoming a part of our modern lives," Lee said. "In order to reduce the risk of developing long-term neck and shoulder problems, we need to think about how technology like tablet computer affects human ergonomics and posture."

‘Catastrophizing’ Doesn’t Mean Pain Is All in Your Head

(Editor’s Note: Last month we published a story about pain “catastrophizing,” and how a new study showed that women who have negative or emotional responses to pain are more likely than men to be prescribed opioid medication. Several readers were offended by the study, as well as our story, feeling they belittled women and their ability to handle pain.

The two co-authors of the study, which was published in the journal Anesthesiology, kindly agreed to address some of these concerns and further explain their research.)

By Yasamin Sharifzadeh and Beth Darnall, PhD, Guest Columnists

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas about our recently published paper on opioid prescription and pain catastrophizing. We would like to address a few concerns brought up and to clarify some of the statements made in our publication.

First and foremost, our study analyzed pain catastrophizing, which has a different and more nuanced definition than terms such as complaining or worrying, that are commonly used to describe it.

Pain catastrophizing is measured via a 13 question survey, with specific subsets used to assess varying aspects of the way we emotionally approach pain. This term is not meant to downplay or discredit pain or its associated emotions. In fact, we use it to better understand the many manifestations of pain.

But for some people, the term “catastrophizing” is offensive. We hear those negative responses, but in clinic, when the term is described, many patients will say:  “I do that!  That is totally me.”  So while not everyone is offended by the term, some people are. It’s important to know that catastrophizing does not mean that pain is all in your head, or your fault, or that you did anything wrong.

Our nervous systems are hardwired to respond to pain with alarm. It is actually an acquired skill to learn to disengage one’s attention to pain and develop strategies that counteract this agitation in the nervous system. Otherwise, it can set us up to have greater distress and pain. This is true for everyone, but for some people the alarm in the nervous system rings louder. 

We sometimes use “negative mindset” as a way to describe difficulties in disengaging from attention to pain or focusing on worsening pain or worst-case scenarios. The science is clear on how our thoughts, attention, and emotions impact pain and pain treatment response.

Whatever the term used to describe this specific form of pain-related distress, it is highly predictive of response to various pain treatments. For this reason, it is important that we identify it and treat it. Not addressing these issues would be neglectful, given the degree to which one’s mindset can undermine treatment response and contribute to suffering.

Men and Women Catastrophize

We also wish to clarify some of the findings of the study. We found that men and women, in a general sample of chronic pain patients, had similar levels of pain catastrophizing. In other words, men and women do not significantly differ in their pain-related emotions. Also, consistent with previous peer-reviewed work, we found that women reported higher than average pain levels.

We took our robust analysis a few steps further to show that in women, pain-related emotions played a bigger role in the likelihood of having an opioid prescription than it did in men. Again, this is not saying that pain catastrophizing played no role in opioid prescribing for men -- just that it had a higher effect in women despite equal levels of pain catastrophizing between the sexes.

Overall, we view our study as a stepping-stone towards an improved understanding of both the physical and emotional manifestations of pain.

Pain catastrophizing is a unique term that describes just one of many ways that we can look at pain-related emotional distress, and it is not meant to discount pain in any way. Rather, it validates the importance of treating pain comprehensively in order to attain better results.

We hope that this study helps people with pain look at pain from many angles and work with their physician to find the solution that works best for them.

Yasamin Sharifzadeh is lead author of the study. She is a second year medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Beth Darnall, PhD, is senior author of the study.  She is a clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of 3 books:    "Less Pain, Fewer Pills," "The Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit," and a forthcoming book entitled “Psychological Treatment for Chronic Pain.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Women Who ‘Catastrophize’ More Likely to Get Opioids

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.

Why Women Feel Chronic Pain More Than Men

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study may help explain why women are more likely to have chronic pain and are more sensitive to painful sensations than men.

It’s because their brains work differently.

In experiments on laboratory animals, researchers at Georgia State University found that immune cells in female rats are more active in regions of the brain involved in pain processing. Their study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that when microglia cells in the brain were blocked, the female rats responded better to opioid pain medication and matched the levels of pain relief normally seen in males.

Women suffer from a higher incidence of chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. And studies have found that they often have to take more morphine than men to get the same level of analgesia.

“Indeed, both clinical and preclinical studies report that females require almost twice as much morphine as males to produce comparable pain relief,” says Hillary Doyle, a graduate student in the Neuroscience Institute of Georgia State. “Our research team examined a potential explanation for this phenomenon, the sex differences in brain microglia.”

In healthy people, microglia cells survey the brain, looking for signs of infection or pathogens like bacteria. Morphine is perceived as a pathogen and activates the cells, causing the release of inflammatory chemicals such as cytokines. Researchers say this causes "a neuroinflammatory response that directly opposes the analgesic effects of morphine."

To test their theory, researchers gave male and female rats naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and found that it inhibits the microglia activation triggered by morphine.

“The results of the study have important implications for the treatment of pain, and suggests that microglia may be an important drug target to improve opioid pain relief in women,” said Dr. Anne Murphy, PhD, co-author of the study and associate professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State.

Murphy says her team’s finding may also help explain why women are significantly more likely to experience chronic pain conditions than men.

A recent study at UCLA and UC Irvine found that microglial cells in both female and male rats can be activated by chronic pain.  The researchers found that brain inflammation in rodents caused by chronic nerve pain led to accelerated growth of microglia. The cells triggered chemical signals in the brain that restricted the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers.

Few Differences in Fibromyalgia Between Men & Women

By Lana Barhum

Fibromyalgia is remarkably more common in women than it is in men, but when it comes to feeling its effects, there is little difference between the sexes, according to results of a new study published in the journal Pain Research and Management.

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression and insomnia. As many as 90 percent of fibromyalgia cases are diagnosed in women.

The Al-Andalus Project consisted of 405 fibromyalgia patients and 247 non-fibromyalgia participants from southern Spain, the vast majority of them women. A significant limitation of the study is that only 73 men participated.

The researchers followed the groups for two years to see if gender-specific symptoms in the fibromyalgia patients existed. Participants were evaluated in several ways, including pain, lifestyle impact, fatigue, sleep issues, mental and emotional health, and cognitive performance.

In the fibromyalgia group, the men showed better working memory than women, whereas sleep latency (the length of time that it takes to go from full wakefulness to the lightest non-REM sleep state) was lower in the female participants. In the non-fibromyalgia group, the male participants showed higher pain thresholds in some areas, but not in others. 

The researchers found that some symptoms, including pain, in fibromyalgia men were worse than their non-fibromyalgia male peers. They believe the findings show that fibromyalgia might affect men more severely than women in tender point tenderness, mental health, and sleep latency, which contradicts earlier research on gender differences.

“Previous research has shown that fibromyalgia men present more severe limitations in physical functioning, social functioning, and health perception. However, we failed to find these differences between fibromyalgia women and men in the present study. Our results are consistent with other studies finding no gender differences in clinical key features in fibromyalgia," they wrote. 

It does still seem that the worst fibromyalgia symptoms, especially pain, affect females more severely than they do males, but the Al-Andalus researchers do not feel that is unique to fibromyalgia. 

"In the general population, women usually present greater pain sensitivity and lower pain threshold than men, which is in agreement with the results found in the nonfibromyalgia group of the present study," they wrote, noting that there is a difference in the way genders perceive and handle pain.

"It has been speculated that both peripheral and central nervous systems pathways might be involved in pain experiences; however, the mechanism underlying gender differences in pain remains misunderstood."

While the findings of the Al-Andalus Project do not support any significant gender differences in fibromyalgia and only offer some indication that fibromyalgia might affect men more severely with some symptoms, the researchers believe there’s a need to further understand why men and women perceive fibromyalgia pain and symptoms differently.

"Our results, then, suggest that fibromyalgia pain might be aggravated in men and, consequently, there might be gender-specific pain mechanisms in fibromyalgia," they said.

The Al-Andalus researchers believe further studies are needed that look at male and female fibromyalgia patients separately

“Given the low sample size of our sample, our findings should be interpreted as preliminary and future studies with a larger sample size of men might confirm or contrast the cut-off scores suggested in the present study," they wrote.

Lana Barhum lives and works in northeast Ohio. She is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant, and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

 To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

Women More Likely to Get Addicted to Pain Meds

Pat Anson, Editor

Over half the women being treated for addiction at methadone clinics in Canada say their first experience with opioids was a pain medication prescribed by a doctor, according to a new study.

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton recruited over 500 men and women being treated for opioid dependence at 13 clinics in Ontario. The aim of the study, which is published online in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, was to identify any significant gender differences between men and women attending the clinics. Participants provided researchers with detailed information about their health and lifestyle, as well as urine tests to measure their use of illicit and legal drugs.

Compared to men, women were found to have more physical and psychological health problems, more childcare responsibilities, and were more likely to have a family history of psychiatric illness.

While over half the women (52%) and about a third (38%) of the men reported doctor-prescribed painkillers as their first contact with opioids, only 35% of participants said they suffered from chronic pain during the study period.

"It's not clear why women are disproportionately affected by opioid dependence originating from prescription painkillers - it could be because they're prescribed painkillers more often due to a lower pain threshold, or it might simply be because they're more likely than men to seek medical care,” said lead author Monica Bawor of McMaster University.

“Whatever the reasons, it's clear that this is a growing problem in Canada and in other countries, such as the U.S., and addiction treatment programmes need to adapt to the changing profile of opioid addiction."

Only about a third (36%) of the study participants were employed or had completed a high school education (28%).

Men were more likely than women to be employed, and were more likely to smoke cigarettes. Men were also more likely to report having smoked marijuana, although rates of marijuana use were relatively high among both men and women, Nearly half (47%) said they had used marijuana in the month prior to the study.

"Most of what we currently know about methadone treatment is based on studies that included few or no women at all. Our results show that men and women who are addicted to opioids have very different demographics and health needs, and we need to better reflect this in the treatment options that are available,” Bawor said.

"A rising number of women are seeking treatment for opioid addiction in Canada and other countries yet, in many cases, treatment is still geared towards a patient profile that is decades out of date - predominantly young, male injecting heroin, and with few family or employment responsibilities."

Compared to studies from the 1990s, the average age of patients being treated for opioid addiction is older (38 vs. 25 years of age), and patients also started using opioids at a later age (25 vs. 21 years). There was a 30% increase in the number of patients becoming addicted to opioids through doctor-prescribed painkillers.

The number of opioid painkiller prescriptions has doubled in Canada over the last two decades. According to the World Health Organization, Canada consumes more opioid painkillers per capita than any other country.