According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and migraines, affect more women than men globally, but women are less likely to receive treatment. According to Dr. Jennifer Wider, a women’s health expert, sexism plays a role in that gap.
“There are gender biases in the practice of medicine that have been there for a long time,” said Dr. Wider. “Most pain studies (more than 80%) that have been conducted have included male subjects only. And symptoms can look different between men and women, so one theory is that medical practitioners don’t have the full picture when it comes to female pain.”
Ali Haggett, a former medical historian reports historical gender biases may play a role in women’s inability to get a correct diagnosis. “There is a longstanding cultural association between women and ‘weakness’ and irrationality, borne from ancient understandings that they were dominated by their reproductive organs (‘hysteria’ meant wandering womb—it was thought to rise up through the body cavity causing a host of unexplainable symptoms). Over time, this has led to the potential for the medical profession to consider that female expression is likely to be neurotic or irrational in some way,” she said.
Too often, women who report chronic pain to their doctors are told there’s nothing wrong with them, or that they need to make a lifestyle change—like losing weight—to deal with their pain. For women with fibromyalgia, for example, it takes an average of five years to receive a correct diagnosis, according to the American Chronic Pain Association. For Black women, the situation is even worse; not only do African American women face a higher risk of developing a chronic illness, but racial discrimination and bias in medicine mean they’re less likely to be believed and to get the treatment they need.
Here are a few things you can do to help your physician “hear you”:
- Keep a pain diary. Talk about when you have pain, where it hurts, what you did before the pain started, what you ate, etc.
- Go to the doctor before the pain gets really bad. As women, we often are too busy to get in to see our physician before it is an emergency.
- When you get into see your doctor – take notes. If it feels like you aren’t being heard, then read the notes back and see if your physician concurs
- Use “I” statements so you are taken seriously.
“I feel like I’m not being heard because when I talk to you, I don’t get any eye contact. I don’t get any feedback about what I just said. I feel like I’m just rushed out the door.” These types of “I” statements should help your doctor realize they’re affecting you emotionally, and hopefully they won’t become defensive
- Get a second opinion. If you aren’t being heard or the treatment prescribed doesn’t feel right, seek another physician’s opinion. If you are female, consider seeing a female doctor or pain specialist.
- If nothing works, fire your doctor and find a new one! Your pain matters!
**Summary of 6 ways women can stand up for themselves when doctors ignore their chronic pain by Stephanie Hallet