Chronic pain is one of the most common and disabling conditions in America, with 100 million Americans—and nearly half of all women—suffering. And many of our treatments don’t work well enough, but new research might change that.

The existing model for pain management says hormones like estrogen alter a common pain circuit present in both men and women, but new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that each sex uses altogether different biological systems to process pain. This new insight might help us find new treatments that target these systems to give chronic pain relief for conditions like TMJ.

A Surprising Discovery

Young woman with TMJ painBoth mechanisms of pain management involve the immune system, which works in conjunction with the nervous system, but the role it plays in each sex differs. In males, a type of immune cell called microglia releases chemicals in response to nerve damage or inflammation, and is regulated by testosterone. Blocking these cells’ signals to the spinal cord provides pain control in male mice, but has no effect on female mice. In the females, the T cell is the immune cell responsible for the same response as the microglia. The T cell is a completely different cell, operating under different hormones in the body. The realization that males and females differ in how they process pain will allow health providers to design and offer more effective chronic pain treatment for women.

With nearly half of all women in the US suffering from chronic pain, it’s hard to understand why this process wasn’t discovered sooner, but researchers say it’s because studies of this mechanism were done using male mice only, which changed recently thanks to a new National Institutes of Health policy requiring the use of female animals as well as males in all research.

Why We Need Tailored Pain Treatment for Women

TMJ disorder is a chronic pain condition affecting over 10 million people in the US, 90% of whom are women in their childbearing years, so the research being done on the differences in pain processing is critical. Women may be more likely than men to suffer TMJ because of:

Hormones – Studies show that women who are on birth control or undergo hormone replacement therapy frequently report jaw pain, and much research has been done establishing a link between estrogen, pain, and jaw joints

Medical Conditions – Women suffering from fibromyalgia and arthritis often report TMJ pain. As both conditions are found primarily in women, it would follow that they would make up a larger percentage of TMJ cases related to these disorders. Studying the underlying causes and treatments as they pertain to women will lead to better treatment of TMJ.

Vitamin Deficiencies – Magnesium deficiencies have been linked to several conditions found to be more common among women, including TMJ syndrome. There is a possibility that menstruation and childbirth contributes to sometimes chronic vitamin deficiencies, which may explain why TMJ affects women in their childbearing years.

Scientists are still trying to understand TMJ disorder and the differences in this condition between men and women. But as research progresses in the fields of pain processing and management, new forms of therapies that are specifically tailored to women’s needs will help many find relief.

To learn more about how TMJ treatment can be tailored to fit your specific needs, please call (303) 691-0267 today for an appointment with a TMJ dentist at the TMJ Therapy and Sleep Center of Colorado in Denver.