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Study probes women's pain threshold

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Women who have been abused and who experience strong mood changes in tandem with their menstrual cycle also feel pain more acutely than other women, according to new research.

Dr Diana Fleischman, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, and colleagues in the US, are the first to examine links between menstrually-related mood disorder and a history of physical or sexual abuse.

The authors ran a series of experiments on pain thresholds on 126 women.

All of the women took part in two pain tests - holding their hand in an ice water bath and tightening a tourniquet on the upper arm - and they were asked to describe their pain on a scale of one to 10.

Women who experienced mood swings and had a history of abuse could cope with the pain for significantly less time than other women, described the pain as more intense and unpleasant and had the lowest baseline levels of stress, indicating they felt the pain more acutely.

Dr Fleischman said: “It seems that a history of abuse and menstrually-related mood disorder both influence pain sensitivity, and that women who have both of these show the lowest pain thresholds.

“These findings may help explain why some women are more likely to suffer chronic pain or pain syndromes.”

Dr Fleischman said that results of this study added to the growing body of evidence that such women may be a clinically distinct sub-group of patients.

Menstrually-related mood disorder is characterised by emotional and physical symptoms that come and go depending on the time of the month and which affect about one in 10 women.

It is more severe than pre-menstrual tension which affects about one in three women.

Clinically, symptoms of menstrually-related mood disorders are equivalent to major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder for the impact they can have on a woman’s quality of life.

According to government figures, 1.6 million women and girls in the UK suffered some form of abuse in the last year, which means 160,000 women and girls in the UK are likely to feel pain more severely than others, according to Dr Fleischman.

The research is published in the journal Health Psychology.


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