‘It’s in Your Head’: How Doctors Dismiss Chronic Pain in Women
From pay to pain gap - more women are misdiagnosed with a mental disorder than men in when in case of chronic pain.
From pay to pain gap - more women are misdiagnosed with a mental disorder than men in when in case of chronic pain. (Photo: Aroop Mishra/Fit)

‘It’s in Your Head’: How Doctors Dismiss Chronic Pain in Women

Have you been struggling with any form of physical pain lately? Maybe a limb, a joint, a muscle? Chances are, if you are a woman, it might not even get treated in the first instance. If you have been told by a doctor, that the pain is in your head and that maybe you need to consult a psychiatrist or psychologist, you won’t be the only one.

Women’s illness over the centuries have been written off as being a result of their temperamental natures which would make them “hysterical”. This has been maintained by formal medical science for the longest time.

But all of this was the talk of yesteryears, right? Wrong. We are no better off even now as women continue to be dismissed when they complain of physical pain.

Too caught up to read? Listen to the story here:

Painful Period Cramps? It’s Just Nature, Forget Them

When David Roberts spoke about his struggles with severe pain in a New York Times op-ed, it was widely shared as a beacon of hope for several others who might also be struggling with pain. However, on the other side of the spectrum were women who pointed out the stark difference in which their pain is looked at.

When it comes to acute abdominal pain, men have to wait an average of 49 minutes in a US hospital, as compared to a 65-minute-long wait for women, points out this report.

Another example of this disparity is menstrual cramps.
Another example of this disparity is menstrual cramps.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Another example of this disparity is menstrual cramps. While half of all menstruating women get cramps, they could be intensely painful and debilitating for every one out of seven women. However, it took us as late as 2016 for those beyond the women-community to acknowledge their severity. A study finally affirmed that they can often be as painful as a heart attack. Ironically, the conclusion came from a man. Perhaps we would have still not been talking about period cramps if the same conclusion had come from a woman.

Oh wait, it already has. By millions of women. All over the world. Innumerable times.

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“It’s All in Your Head”

Harkiron Kaur, a 59-year-old retired professional, recalls her own struggle with severe pain of fibromyalgia (a disorder affecting muscles and tissues and characterised by severe pain).

For about 15-18 years, I moved from one doctor to another and became a guinea pig of sorts. Because fibromyalgia was beyond their spectrum of knowledge they blamed it on other things. Citing examples of my personal problems, they said my pain is a way of seeking attention. They said I should see a psychiatrist because I am imagining this pain. There were other instances when I was also called lazy.
Harkiron Kaur
‘It’s all in your head.’
‘It’s all in your head.’
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Age group is another factor which determines how doctors look at pain, she adds.

If you’re a young girl, the doctors would link the pain to periods. If you’re a mature woman, they would consider hormonal problems or even physical trauma and the possibility of abuse by your partner.
Harkiron Kaur

However, there seem to be no set templates like these when it comes to pain in men.

But Why This Gendered Approach in Addressing Pain?

Studies show that women are seven times more likely than men to get a wrong diagnosis and get discharged in the middle of a heart attack. Misdiagnosis is also infinitely more dangerous because it often leads to umpteen women suffering quietly without even being aware of what afflicts their bodies. In many cases, it can also lead to a physiological problem getting diagnosed as a mental disorder. In fact, women with chronic pain are more likely to be given a wrong treatment for a mental disorder than men.

<a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM200008243430809">Studies show</a> that women are seven times more likely than men to get a wrong diagnosis and get discharged in the middle of a heart attack.
Studies show that women are seven times more likely than men to get a wrong diagnosis and get discharged in the middle of a heart attack.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

One reason for this bias is the lack of exploration of the female body when it comes to health problem. A Harvard study had the following facts to offer in this context:

...70 percent of the people it (chronic pain) impacts are women. And yet, 80 percent of pain studies are conducted on male mice or human men. One of the few studies to research gender differences in the experience of pain found that women tend to feel it more of the time and more intensely than men. While the exact reasons for this discrepancy haven’t been pinpointed yet, biology and hormones are suspected to play a role.

Share Your Story

Chronic pain in women is often seen as a result of emotional or mental problems. While the lack of research on the female body persists, it has been concluded that conditions like migraines, fibromyalgia, autoimmune problems, depression and Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, affect women more than men. Yet, the biases in treatment continues.

Doctors are likely to think that the reason behind women’s pain is emotional instead of physical, despite having evidence otherwise in the form of medical test results, points out this report. Gender bias is real and it is severely impacting the health of women, making fighting biases, sexism and misogyny in medical science the need of the hour.

While we struggle to fight gendered stereotypes, tell us if you also have a story to share. Waging your own personal battle with pain? Write in to us about your fight.

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