Ask any woman about her personal experience with pain and healthcare, and it is likely that you will hear stories like mine.
In my late teens/early 20s I dealt a lot of pelvic pain and chronic urinary tract infections. You can read more about my story, here. No matter how much I tried to prevent pain or infections from returning, I would still get them. I was constantly battling pelvic pain and the most my doctor did was give me refills on antibiotics and continuously gave me the talk about “proper hygiene”. Not ever, did they want to explore other possibilities to why I was so susceptible to infections and pain. The “wipe front to back” speech got old, really fast. A few years into this pattern, and I unfortunately had a reaction to the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin, so I finally had enough and asked that I see a urologist.
I have had many appointments with doctors who did not take my pain seriously and dismissed my concerns. I can’t say for sure if it was because they were just unaware or unsympathetic of the effects of chronic pain or if it was because I was just another woman in their office complaining about pelvic pain.
2014 is when I saw my first urologist. Following the painful cystoscopy, in a cold surgical room, I was I told by this doctor that nothing was wrong with the anatomy of my bladder and that “many women get urinary tract infections, so proper hygiene key and to wipe front to back.” *Cringe*. I left the doctors office in tears, again, with no answers or treatment to help me.
That is only the tip of the iceberg with my medical experiences. I wish I could tell you that my story is a unique experience, but in reality, I’m not the only woman who has had to endure such ordeals. You can ask any woman about her experiences with pelvic pain and healthcare, and you’re likely to hear stories like mine. It’s not only every day women speaking up about getting dismissed by medical professionals on their personal blogs, there is a lot of academic research to back it up.
Let’s look at some of that research:
In 2007, a study was done at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania that examined patients in their Emergency Room Department. They found that when patients were complaining of the same level of severe abdominal pain, men waited an average of 49 minutes before being treated, while women had waited for an average of 65 minutes. When you’re in pain, 16 minutes is a lot of time. That same study reported that gender bias may be a component in the treatment of abdominal pain. And also stated that despite having similar pain scores, women are less likely to receive analgesic treatment than men, particularly opiates, and wait longer for their medications.
Another study that was done by Karen Calderone in 1990. She looked into the medication records of patients who had recently undergone heart surgery. What she found was appalling. When presenting with the same symptoms, male patients were given pain medication far more frequently than female patients. What’s worse, when women were treated for their pain, they were often given sedatives rather than analgesics for their pain.
Finally, another important topic to bring up is, that up until three years ago, most studies only used male animals. As a result, women in particular may be left living with unnecessary pain since pain medications are tested based on male genetics. You can find a great CBC article that discusses sexism in mouse research here. Men and women have different biological pathways, which means pain-relieving drugs that work for one sex might fail in the other half of the population.
So, why is this happening?
We are far away from “hysteria” diagnosis’, but sexism hasn’t gone away completely. (*cough* Alabama just enacted the United States’ most restrictive abortion law.) Misogynistic people make women out to be over emotional and irrational, making easier for doctors to believe women’s pain has no physical grounds and must be driven by anxiety and emotions. Men, however, are seen as being rational and level-headed. When they say they feel pain, doctors take their symptoms more seriously.
Also, because of societal norms, doctors may feel uncomfortable with “emotional” women. Rather than addressing the cause of their pain and suffering, they push patients out the door with bandaid solutions instead of finding the real problem. This only leaves women in distress longer, which then leads to a jump in the probability of developing chronic pain/illness and depression.
What can you do about it?
Since medical professionals not only take women’s pain less seriously than men’s, but often misdiagnose it as being emotionally driven or “a normal part of being a woman”, convincing our doctors to listen to us is not easy.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make sure you get the medical care you deserve:
- Keep a good record of your symptoms, doctor’s visits, medications, hospitalizations + surgeries. Having an organized binder is a good start. Bring it with you when you know you’ll be seeing any member of your medical team, especially a new doctor or specialist. In the coming weeks, I will be sharing a digital product I have created to help you get the most out of your doctor appointments and ER visits! In the meantime you can subscribe to The Happy Pelvis to receive a Free Printable Pelvic Pain Tracker 💙
- If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, bring someone with you who can express your concerns.
- If a doctor is downplaying your symptoms or claiming they are caused by anxiety, you have every right to disagree. Explain why you take issue with their diagnosis and give them evidence to back up why you think they’re wrong. You know your body better than anyone else. Don’t let anyone make you feel like your pain isn’t real. If you know something is wrong and your doctor is failing in their duty to help you, seek second, third, or however many opinions you need.
- Become an advocate and spread awareness about your condition(s) so more doctors can hear and see that our pain is real.
As human beings, we deserve to be treated equally and have our pain taken seriously, receive proper treatment, and be given the same level of care as men. Unfortunately, this won’t happen overnight. Until it happens, we’ll just have to keep fighting.