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Iscte researcher joins international task force on sexual and gender disparities in pain

Sónia Bernardes, a researcher at the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) and professor at Iscte's School of Social Sciences, has been appointed to join a task force of the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), which has designated 2024 as the Global Year on Sex and Gender Disparities in Pain.

Sónia Bernardes at Iscte / © 2024 Hugo Cruz | Iscte

The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) Global Year focuses on a particular aspect of pain to raise awareness not only among the pain research and intervention community, but also more broadly. The Global Year 2024 will examine the evidence on sex and gender differences in the perception and modulation of pain and address sex and gender-related disparities in both pain research and treatment. Sónia Bernardes was invited by the IASP presidency to join the working group dedicated to working on these issues in 2024, addressing potential disparities in research, but also in pain treatment.

According to the CIS-Iscte researcher, "several studies have shown how sex and gender play a fundamental role in the perception and modulation of pain". The researcher adds that

"Both the biological factors associated with sex and the psychological and social factors associated with gender contribute to explaining why, in general, women live more often with generalized and disabling chronic pain".

According to the researcher, integrating this knowledge into the development of new intervention programs is fundamental to promoting the quality of life of thousands of people living with chronic pain.

Sónia Bernardes has researched several aspects of chronic pain throughout her academic and scientific career. Recently, she was part of an international research team that explored the existing stigma towards people with chronic pain. The results of this study published in 2023 suggest that the cognitive, affective and behavioral responses of the general population towards people with chronic pain seem to depend on the type of pain, whether it is associated with a visible health problem, but also on other factors, such as the gender of the person with pain. Specifically, public stigma was greater towards people with chronic pain that is not associated with an underlying illness or injury compared to people whose pain was associated with an underlying illness or injury. Despite previous evidence of greater stigmatization of women with chronic pain, in the study only men without chronic pain expected more public stigma towards women with chronic pain than men with chronic pain, a pattern that was not observed in the group of participants with chronic pain. For the researcher, "these data indicate a need to consider multiple factors when examining public stigma towards chronic pain, as they can have complex and interconnected effects on individuals' experiences and well-being." Other social factors, such as the country of origin, may also influence pain-related beliefs and even adaptation and functioning responses among individuals with chronic pain, demonstrating the importance in understanding them.

Crop anonymous woman stretching elastic band near professional chiropractor

© 2020 Karolina Grabowska | Pexels

"Some of the research carried out with people suffering from chronic pain also aims to inform practices in healthcare settings," says Sónia Bernardes. For example, a study carried out at CIS-Iscte examined how interaction with caregivers can help older people living with chronic pain. Other types of support have also been explored in her research. In a joint study with researchers from the University of Ottawa (Canada), social support was explored, namely the role of friendship in adjusting to chronic pain, a topic that has rarely been investigated. Analysis of the participants' experiences revealed two themes. The first theme captured how friends can help or hinder living with chronic pain by being available and providing the necessary support, or by not being accepting and accommodating to support involvement in the life of the person with chronic pain. The second theme captured the negative effect of chronic pain on the attitudes and behaviors of both parties towards the relationship, leading to friendship networks becoming smaller and more homogeneous. Sónia Bernardes, first author of this study, concludes that "it seems relevant to include adult friends in interventions with patients to reduce the negative effect of chronic pain on friendships and daily life, taking advantage of their potential to promote adjustment to chronic pain".

The health community has recognized the contributions of research to the study of pain. In 2023, the work of Inês Oliveira, a PhD student in Psychology at Iscte, supervised by CIS-Iscte researchers Sónia Bernardes and Margarida Garrido, was awarded the "Prémio Garcia de Orta 2023" by the Garcia de Orta Hospital, and the Grünenthal Foundation's "Grünenthal Pain Award" 2022. In that study, competence profiles were identified about the self-reported experience of the ability to feel, interpret and self-regulate internal sensations in individuals with chronic musculoskeletal pain. The study's data not only refines theoretical models of pain by making body-mind interactions explicit, but it also contributes to the development of personalized interventions, improving the adjustment to chronic pain and the quality of life of people with this type of pain.

"Considering different psychosocial factors involved in chronic pain is essential for advancing research in this area, in order to develop high-quality, evidence-based interventions," says Sónia Bernardes. "By considering sex and gender in chronic pain, I am sure that the IASP task force for the Global Year 2024 will be able to inform future research and interventions," she concludes.



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