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Are we normalizing women's pain?

March 9th 2023 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)

March 8th marks international women’s day, a day dedicated to the promotion of a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. This year’s hashtag is #EmbraceEquity.

Women’s equality has always been at the forefront of this movement, but what about equity? Equity refers to the availability of access to the services and freedoms that are afforded to the sexes. While women have access to healthcare, is the level of care adequate? 

In short, no. 

Women have never truly been seen in the healthcare system, and their concerns are often dismissed. While many stories that we’re sharing in this article are anecdotal, it paints a very dark picture of what can happen to women who try to seek help for pain disorders and other health issues in a system that simply doesn’t believe them. 

Why Women?

Dr. McNally at the Katz Institute for Women’s Health says that it’s no accident that the word ‘hysteria’ originates from the Greek word for ‘uterus’. Still pervasive in the medical community is the belief that when a woman complains of their health, it’s either hormone related or completely in their head. 

Alyson McGredor, an emergency medicine professor at the University of South Carolina and author of, “Sex Matters: How Male-Centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health and What We Can Do About It,” says that there is an inherent bias within the medical system, especially in emergency departments. Women are assumed to be overly emotional and anxious.

Research suggests that women are more sensitive to pain than men, but once again- this is just a suggestion. Women are more likely to express their pain, and this is often viewed as an overreaction rather than reality. 

Society has historically been encouraged to accept their doctor’s word as the last word, feeding into the unspoken culture of the ‘medical God complex.’ Now, this isn’t a rally call to ignore your physicians. They are here to help us, but it’s okay to admit that there is a time when their opinion isn’t helpful enough. 

Just How Bad Can it Get? 

Molly Hill made an appointment to get an IUD at a Connecticut Clinic in 2017. She was warned that it would be uncomfortable, but discomfort quickly escalated to horrific pain. Molly recalls  shouting at the doctor to stop, but the doctor wouldn’t. Instead they dismissed her and said that the procedure was “almost done.”

Hill describes it as a “full-body, electrifying, knife-stabbing pain.” After the procedure was done, (which one could argue was performed without her consent, after she demanded the doctor to stop), Molly lay sobbing on the table in physical and emotional pain. “It felt violating too…in your core, where you feel the most vulnerable.”

But the problem isn’t just the humiliation, pain and embarrassment. There have been fatal repercussions of the neglect too. 

A 2000 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack. Medical concepts of most diseases are usually based on understanding of male physiology rather than women’s. Women have different symptoms altogether from men; yet, when they have heart attacks, yet they’re treated the absolute same

How Does It Affect Women?

If action is not taken to help women navigate these tricky medical landscapes, the fear and hesitancy to seek help many exacerbate. 

Ashnay Hossain, the author of “The Pain Gap: How Sexism and Racism in Healthcare Kill Women,” says that there’s a significant credibility gap, and women are simply not believed about concerns of their own bodies. 

If someone has already experienced gaslighting from a medical professional in the past, there’s a high chance they’ll fear going through that experience again- but this can also mean women may start to ignore their symptoms or discredit their own pain. 

Jan Madeiros, an Air Force veteran who suffered for years with a diagnosis that wasn’t acknowledged by doctors says, “You start to doubt yourself after so many medical experts tell you there’s nothing wrong with you.”

How You Can Become an Advocate For Our Own Health 

Marjorie Jenkins, the Dean of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, urges women to go against feeling pressured to accept an ‘everything is normal’ non-diagnosis. Unfortunately, the state of healthcare no matter where you live is about as consumer-driven as ever before. 

You are the client, and if your provider isn’t giving you the answers you need, don’t be afraid to seek another professional's opinion (or another one after that.) While it might seem like an extreme step, if you have a family or friend who can also attend the appointment to corroborate the story, it’s all the more helpful. 

So you think you’re being gaslighted? 

Here’s some things to keep in mind: 

  • Keep a log or a journal of your symptoms, when they started, when they flare up and anything else that will help you paint a picture as you tell your story to a healthcare professional. 
  • Don’t be afraid to push back and say that’s on your mind. Your doctor is not your caretaker, rather they’re just your partner on your own healthcare journey. It’s okay to disagree. 
  • Seeking a second opinion is not betrayal