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Published in Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences, researchers investigated the links between sex hormones and pain receptors in relation to migraines.
Experts estimate that chronic pain affects more than 20% of the world’s population and is one of the most debilitating human diseases. Researchers are working to understand the cellular and molecular processes that contribute to chronic pain.
In particular, some types of chronic pain affect men and women at different rates. Migraines, for example, are up to three times more common in women than in men. Women also report more frequent, longer-lasting, and more severe migraines than men. A review published in Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences explains our current understanding of sex-related differences in migraine pain.
Many cellular and molecular signals sent through the immune and nervous systems dictate how we feel pain. Inside our cells, a specialized group of proteins called transient receptor potential (TRP) channels sense harmful chemical or physical changes in the body. These TRP channels interact with hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
The review highlights the possibility that estrogen directly activates a pathway that leads to migraine pain. Scientists believe that because estrogen receptors and TRP channels are located near each other in the brain, sex hormones influence migraine pain levels.
The data concerning estrogen and migraines are mixed. Some studies report that low levels of estrogen may be linked to an increase in migraine frequency while others state that estrogen supplements stimulate migraine attacks. Generally, the risk of a migraine is greater during the reproductive years in women and the risk decreases after menopause.
Many studies link progesterone with pain blocking mechanisms in nerve cells. Like estrogen, more studies are needed to better understand how progesterone contributes to migraine attacks.
Notably, men report less chronic migraine pain than women, along with shorter and less intense episodes of pain. This suggests that testosterone plays a role in migraine pain. In fact, clinical studies show that testosterone replacement therapy reduces pain. Other studies suggest that testosterone has a protective effect against pain.
The authors suggest that the information presented in their review will help researchers design more effective pain medications and migraine therapies targeted specifically for women.
Written by Cindi A. Hoover, Ph.D.
Reference: Atero-Morales M et al. TRP channels as potential targets for sex-related differences in migraine pain. 2018. Front. Mol. Biosci. 5:73.doi: 10.3389/fmolb.2018.00073