Do Women Need Higher Doses Of Pain Medication?

Whether it's during a doctor's visit to manage your fibromyalgia or a trip to the emergency room for a broken bone, we've all been asked the question, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your pain today?" When it comes to men versus women, there seems to be a difference in how they answer questions about how they experience pain. According to The International Association for the Study of Pain, women may generally experience more severe pain that happens more frequently and lasts longer.

Pain medications — both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) — are used by all people to help manage symptoms. Since women experience pain more intensely than men, do they typically get prescribed higher doses of pain medication for relief? According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the answer is yes: Women not only are more likely to be prescribed higher doses of pain medication but also stay on medication for longer periods of time than men. So what is the reason behind these findings? 

Female hormones factor in the way pain is experienced

The hormonal differences between men and women could be the culprit behind why women feel pain differently and are prescribed higher doses of pain meds. Roger Fillingim, a researcher and director of the University of Florida's Pain Research and Intervention Center of Excellence told NPR Morning Edition, "Women have both higher levels and fluctuations in circulating estrogens and progesterone, and those may contribute to experiencing higher levels of pain."

According to a 2020 review article in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, sex hormones influence the way that pain signals travel throughout the body. This has a direct impact on how women perceive pain. In addition to hormonal differences, other factors may have an effect on higher pain levels in women. Compared with men, women are more likely to experience chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and low back pain, which could be due to differences in anatomy, the inflammatory response, and neuromuscular control.

How are women getting prescribed pain meds?

Because women experience more chronic pain, they are more likely to be prescribed opioid medications. A 2021 study in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal revealed that not only do women get prescribed opioid drugs more than men but they also are prescribed higher doses. We all know that the constant use of prescription pain medication can lead to addiction. Unfortunately, opioid addiction has been an ongoing issue for many people with pain, especially women.

The FDA encourages women to keep track of their pain and to talk to their health care providers about making the right choice for their pain management. Keeping a journal to record how your pain feels, where you're hurting, and when you're suffering from pain plays an important part in your doctor prescribing the best pain medication for your relief. The goal should be to discontinue or decrease the use of pain medication as your condition improves.