Modulation of pain by estrogens

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It has become increasingly apparent that women suffer a disproportionate amount of pain during their lifetime compared to men. Over the past 15 years, a growing number of studies have suggested a variety of causes for this sex difference, from cellular to psychosocial levels of analysis. From a biological perspective, sexual differentiation of pain appears to occur similarly to sexual differentiation of other phenomena: it results in large part from organizational and activational effects of gonadal steroid hormones. The focus of this review is the activational effects of a single group of ovarian hormones, the estrogens, on pain in humans and animals. The effects of estrogens (estradiol being the most commonly examined) on experimentally induced acute pain vs. clinical pain are summarized. For clinical pain, the review is limited to a few syndromes for which there is considerable evidence for estrogenic involvement: migraine, temporomandibular disorder (TMD) and arthritis. Because estrogens can modulate the function of the nervous, immune, skeletal, and cardiovascular systems, estrogenic modulation of pain is an exceedingly complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, with estrogens producing both pro- and antinociceptive effects that depend on the extent to which each of these systems of the body is involved in a particular type of pain. Forging a more complete understanding of the myriad ways that estrogens can ameliorate vs. facilitate pain will enable us to better prevent and treat pain in both women and men.

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