No, it’s not that women are more sensitive to pain than men; there’s a biological reason behind the difference.
Throughout their lives, women are more likely than men to experience headaches. In particular, women are three times as likely as men to experience migraines, those nasty debilitating headaches that typically occur on one-side of the head and increase light and noise sensitivity, according to the U.S. National Medical Library.
The reason why women get more headaches than men can be explained in one word: hormones. Changes in estrogen levels can act as a trigger to a protective response from the brain.
“The migraine generator flips on, which communicates directly to the fifth nerve, also referred to as the migraine nerve, which is basically the freeway of pain on the face and head,” said Soma Sahai-Srivastava, MD, associate professor of neurology at Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the Headache and Neuralgia Center at USC Neurosciences of Keck Medicine of USC. “Once this is flipped on, it spills toxic, inflammatory chemicals on the roadmap of the brain. Then the blood vessels start acting out, which produces throbbing; it’s like an orchestra on the surface of the brain.”
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There are four occasions that bring on the most dramatic hormone fluctuations.
- Before a period: Many women report having migraines right before they get their period and during the first few days, when estrogen levels dip. If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor about preventative medications so you don’t experience migraines in the first place. You may also want to consider taking birth control pills to help regulate the dip in your hormones.
- Pregnancy: During pregnancy, estrogen levels rise rapidly and remain high until the baby is born. Many women find that their migraines improve during pregnancy, when estrogen levels are stable. (However, pregnant women often still experience other types of headaches including tension headaches.)
- After giving birth: It’s after the baby is born that may be a troublesome time. Hormones shift again, with a sharp decrease in estrogen levels. New moms often don’t get a lot of sleep and are under increased stress — more triggers for migraines.
- Perimenopause: The years leading up to menopause (perimenopause) can be particularly challenging for migraine sufferers as hormones shift up and down with seemingly no predictability. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been shown to improve headaches in some women, make them worse in others and sometimes have no effect. You’ll need to work with your doctor to find the best treatment.
After menopause, when periods — and the hormone fluctuations that accompany them — stop, many women find their migraines improve, only to find tension headaches get worse.
Are you a migraine sufferer? See your primary care physician to find out what the most effective treatment options are for you.
If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for a new primary care physician, be sure to schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting http://www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.