I was in the hospital for most of the week after having a C-section to deliver my first child. I had been home for almost another week, but endured tremendous pain in my lower abdomen. The pain kept building and building each day until tears streamed down my face constantly. My mother took me back to my OB-GYN to figure out what was happening to me. He was a very calm, gentle, and kind man who clearly loved his job. However, on the day I went back in to treat my severe pain, he was out of the office. I had to see his back-up, a nurse practitioner.
I hobbled into the office, doubling over because I could not stand up due to the pain. In tears, I explained the sensations I was feeling and how medication was entirely unhelpful. The first thing the nurse practitioner, a woman no-less, asked me was, “Well, it’s been almost two weeks now and all the hormones should be out of you. Do you think maybe you’re just depressed?”
Why is women’s pain dismissed?
A Close Call
In hindsight, I wish I would have answered her with a question of my own: “Do you think maybe you’re just incompetent?” However, I was in so much agony at the time that I couldn’t think clearly. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but imagine how affirming it was for me when she visibly saw a severe problem had indeed been brewing. You see, while my incision gave the outward appearance that everything was healing up nicely, the inside was wide-open and filled with infection. Thankfully, she didn’t simply try to prescribe me an antidepressant and send me on my merry way. That could have killed me. Sadly, however, that very scenario actually happens to women more often than you can imagine. The pain women experience is regularly dismissed as some sort of emotional distress or anxiety.
Heads up: we are circling the edge of some very complex territory, folks. The research on why women’s pain is dismissed is actually quite dense, but we’ll simply address some of the highlights for the time being.
Differences in Treatment
Multiple studies have found that in both adults and children, there is a strong tendency to address pain differently with women. A landmark study, “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain,” chronicles extensive research examining this very topic. A consistent finding is directly related to the association of pain in women with anxiety and emotional distress. This is blatantly obvious when it comes to administering medication. For example, one study “found that male patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft received narcotics more often than female patients, although the female patients received sedatives more often, suggesting that female patients were more often perceived as anxious rather than in pain.”
Frankly, there are a few reasons why this perception exists in the first place. One of those is related to the way women communicate their pain in comparison to men. Even the way we hear that information has a variety of roots. Including the misconception that women are more emotional and therefore irrational.
How does this play out when seeking treatment? Consider this take on sexism in medicine: “Research shows hospital staff take women’s pain less seriously, spent less time treating them and are more likely to wrongly diagnose physical pain as ‘just emotional’. This gender pain gap has a number of serious and far-reaching implications; including that women in acute pain are left to suffer for longer in hospitals, they are more likely to be misdiagnosed with mental health problems due to misogynistic stereotypes that women are ‘emotional’ even when clinical results show their pain is real and they are consistently allocated less time than male patients by hospital staff due to men’s complaints being seeing [sic] as more authoritative and important.” The irony is that this happens to women even after clinical tests show that their pain is real.
It’s Even Worse Without Reliable Tests
Author and teacher at Northwestern University, Laurie Edwards, published an often-cited article on this topic, “The Gender Pain Gap.” In referencing a great deal of research, Edwards explains her personal experience at being taken seriously, only to finally discover she had a rare genetic lung disease.
Here she opines that “conditions like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, for which definitive causes have not been identified and concrete diagnostic tests are not available, illustrate the problems associated with the perceived reliability of the female patient as narrator of her pain. Women are more likely to receive diagnoses of many of these more nebulous conditions — fibromyalgia, which affects about six million patients in the United States, is nine times more likely to be diagnosed in women than in men — and this discrepancy surely contributes to the widespread skepticism that still exists over the legitimacy of these disorders.”
We have not even scratched the surface of this topic. We’ll continue to explore it further together. In the meantime, if you are a woman, how often have your claims of pain been dismissed as emotional problems? How many years did it take to get a healthcare practitioner to take you seriously? Please share your story with us.