Sex, drugs, and...pain relief

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Let gender drive your Rx choice A little sex discrimination might make you feel good-if you need to take painkillers. A recent study found that women got relief from a pain medication that had previously been passed off by doctors as ineffective.

When 20 women and 28 men were given a type of painkiller known as a kappa-opioid (a synthetic drug related to morphine) following wisdom-tooth removal, the women reported greater and longer pain relief than the men. The results were even more surprising in light of the fact that women often report greater pain and less tolerance to it than men (Nature Medicine, November 1996).

Researchers suspect the potency of kappa-opioids (nalbuphine and butorphanol were used in this study) wasn't fully realized because earlier studies may have tested them mostly in men.

As a result, both men and women are more frequently prescribed painkillers known as mu-opioids (think Percodan, Demerol, morphine). But this study suggests that for women, kappa-opioids may have extra advantages over mu-opioids. "Kappa-opioids are less likely to have the potentially troubling side effects-sleepiness, constipation, nausea, mental confusion, and possible addiction-associated with the mu-opioids," says Jon D. Levine, MD, PhD, study author, University of CaliforniaDSan Francisco. "So for women who reported pain relief comparable to that of a mu-opioid, kappa-opioids appear ideal," says Dr. Levine. Talk with your doctor about kappa-opioids for your specific pain problem.

The results of this study promise to revolutionize the medical community. In the short run, women have gained a safe, highly effective analgesic option. More important, in the long run, both sexes should benefit as drug companies seek to incorporate these new-ly discovered gender differences in future developments.

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By Yun Lee Wolfe and Peggy Morgan

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