Your Pain Is Not Real: How Doctors Discriminate Against Women
Because of sexist myths about health and pain, women have more difficulty getting proper diagnoses and treatment for serious conditions.
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"Unfortunately, women are taken less seriously more often than men when it comes to pain," Dr. Jennifer Wider, a nationally renowned women's health expert and the spokeswoman for the Society for Women's Health Research, told Broadly. "Studies show that doctors, regardless of gender, tend to undertreat female patients and take longer to administer medication to women." A 2001 study published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics found that doctors often incorrectly believe that women have a "natural capacity to endure pain" and possess more coping mechanisms thanks to the stresses of childbirth. A National Institute of Health study also shows that women tend to wait 16 minutes longer than men when they are receiving pain medicine in emergency rooms. According to the same study, women are 13 to 25 percent less likely to receive opioids when they are dealing with pain.
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Most young women have dealt with doctors' stereotypical views of women. I first realized a doctor wasn't taking my pain seriously when I visited a new primary care doctor because an ovarian cyst had burst. Previous doctors had prescribed me the type of painkiller you might flush down the toilet after the pain had subsided, but my new doctor (who could never have experienced a burst ovarian cyst) gave me a cringey smile when I asked for medication. "I don't really love to prescribe painkillers for this kind of thing," he said. "Have you ever tried meditation for managing pain?"
I'm hardly alone in my experience. Period and reproductive pain is often chronically undertreated and underfunded. According to a ResearchGate investigation, there are more than five times as many scientific studies about erectile disfunction as there are about PMS, although 19 percent of men report suffering from erectile dysfunction at some point in their lives, compared to the 90 percent of women who have experienced symptoms of PMS. The 2001 study also showed that women's pain is more likely to be perceived as "emotional" or "psychogenic" rather than caused by biological factors.
A woman I spoke to named Inga, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suffered from persistent pain in her jawline. Her female dentist constantly asked her about the stress in her life, and diagnosed her with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD) caused by anxiety. Inga tried to treat it for years, but all her attempts failed. Finally, she got an X-ray and discovered that a piece of her wisdom tooth was caught in her jaw. Improper diagnoses—that issues are stress-related, rather than caused by other factors—can lead to years of misdiagnosis and mistreatment. "Sexist stereotypes have existed in medicine for a long time," says Dr. Wider.
Another reason doctors might be underdiagnosing their female patients? A 2010 Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes study found that guidelines around preventing cardiovascular disease in women came from trials where only 34 percent of participants were women. Research has also found that medical students and residents are more likely to misdiagnose women displaying symptoms of coronary heart disease as suffering from stress than men suffering from the same symptoms if the patient expresses feelings of anxiety.
Beyond the difficulty of getting health issues properly diagnosed, many women experience issues stemming from doctors' attitudes. A woman named Beth spent a summer in agonizing stomach pain, making frequent visits to doctors, including a gastroenterologist who repeatedly told her that she was just suffering from heartburn. "I was crying because I was in so much pain and nearly unable to eat solid food," Beth says. "When I cried, he asked me, 'How's your home life?' in the most condescending tone I'd ever heard from a doctor." Unsatisfied with his diagnosis, Beth pressured her doctor to order her a CAT scan, which showed she had a tumor.
How can women be better advocates for themselves in the face of a world of medical professionals who may not take them seriously? While doctors no doubt need to relieve themselves of sexist myths about women's health and pain, Dr. Wilder also believes women need to be empowered to speak up and make sure that they are being heard. "Women need to advocate strongly for themselves and trust their instincts" she says. "Especially if they are in a lot of pain, they need to speak up immediately."