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The link between chronic pain that affects millions of women and hormones that control the menstrual cycle and reproductive function is to be studied for the first time by researchers at the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

The study is being run by the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology with support from Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It seeks to determine the extent to which hormone production is altered in women with chronic pain so they can be better diagnosed and treated.

The results will also help further research on whether hormones can be used to reduce chronic pain.

About 7.8m UK people live with chronic pain, with up to one third of women of child-bearing age affected.

It is well known that physical or psychological stress can alter the menstrual cycle in women, with periods becoming irregular or stopping completely during times of high stress.

Chronic pain is known to lead to altered levels of the stress hormone cortisol, however, as yet no one has investigated what effect chronic pain has on the production of the hormones that control the menstrual cycle and reproductive function such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

It is possible that altered levels of some of these hormones may make it harder for a woman to become pregnant, particularly if this leads to irregular or absent periods.

Importantly, persistent low levels of estrogen are associated with long-term health risks such as osteoporosis, heart disease and stroke.

From the results of our previous research, it is also believed that low levels of estrogen, testosterone and cortisol may worsen the experience of pain.

Dr Katy Vincent, a gynaecologist who is leading the study at the John Radcliffe Hospital, said: "Chronic pain can have devastating effects on women's lives. It impacts on all areas: their relationships, ability to work and care for their children, emotional wellbeing and self-esteem.

"For some women their symptoms are clearly visible. However, particularly if the pain is more intimate such as that perceived in the pelvis or in association with bladder and bowel function or sexual activity, it can be a hidden, isolating condition.

"This study will help us better understand the relationship between chronic pain and hormones with the ultimate aim of improving quality of life, long-term health and pain management for these women."

Women who agree to take part will be asked to complete a questionnaire and give a blood sample of about four teaspoons from their arm.

Further information on Women in Pain Studies, Oxford (WIPSOx1) is available from Lisa Buck on 01865 221120 or lisa.buck@obs-gyn.ox.ac.uk  

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