Female veterans complain less of pain than men

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are less likely to complain of painful physical conditions than their male counterparts, according to a U.S. study.

The study of more than 91,000 U.S. veterans runs counter to what is seen in the general population where women typically show higher rates of chronic pain conditions, including migraines, fibromyalgia and persistent abdominal pain.

Researchers led by Sally Haskell of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven said understanding gender differences in veterans’ risks of various health problems will be increasingly important as more and more women join the military.

“As the VA plans care for the increasing numbers of female personnel, a better understanding of the prevalence of pain, as well as sex-specific variations in the experience and treatment of pain, is important for policy makers and providers,” Haskell said in a statement.

The study found that among the veterans in the study, 43 percent reported some type of physical pain over one year. Among those who had their pain evaluated at least three times, 20 percent had symptoms lasting at least several months.

Men, it turned out, were more likely to report either problem with 44 percent saying they had pain at some point over the year, compared with 38 percent of women.

Of those assessed for persistent pain, 21 percent of men had lingering symptoms, versus 18 percent of women, according to the study published in the journal Pain Medicine.

When women did have pain, however, they were somewhat more likely than men to describe it as moderate to severe. Among veterans with any pain, 68 percent of females had moderate or severe pain, compared with 63 percent of men.

Haskell said it was not clear exactly why these findings in veterans differ from what has been found among civilians but suggested combat exposure could be a factor.

If men are more likely to be seriously injured or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in a war zone that could explain their higher rate of pain complaints.

The researchers also suggested it was possible that the “persistent level of threat” faced by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan essentially equalizes men’s and women’s risk of stress-related pain.

Reporting by Reuters Health, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith