Why Women Experience More Chronic Pain — And Why It Matters

The scientists wanted to test whether the fact that women often require two-to-three times the amount of morphine as men to achieve the same result might be something to do with microglia activating in women’s brains. What they found was incredibly interesting: when they knocked out the actions of microglia in female mice, they discovered that their responsiveness to opioid pain relief suddenly reached the same level as males’. At one stroke, they reduced the doubling or tripling of morphine to the same amount.

Read More: 8 Things to Remember If You Love Someone With Chronic Pain

Male brains have microglia too, so what the hell is going on here? The scientists discovered something else, too, which may prove to be the explanation we’re looking for. “While no overall sex differences in the density of microglia were reported,” they said, “microglia exhibited a more “activated” phenotype in females.” And the more activated the microglia were, the poorer the female mice responded to morphine. This is an extremely odd thing on the face of it. Why would the female immune system get involved in pain processing? But as you explore it a bit, things start to get a little clearer.

Why The Gender Pain Gap Matters

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Microglia may be at the root of some of the more problematic ways in which we experience pain. In 2010, for instance, research found that neuropathic pain, a kind of chronic pain that doesn’t come from inflammation but from problems in the nervous system, can likely be tracked down to microglia going vaguely haywire in the spinal cord. And an entire issue of Experimental Neurology back in 2012 was devoted to how microglia might interact with chronic pain in general, including evidence that it contributes to diabetic pain, pain after injury to the central nervous system, and a range of others. Continue…

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