My Pain Is Real: Stories of Neglect & Biases Towards Women’s Pain

Why are women struggling to be heard in the medical space?

Updated23 Jun 2020, 03:16 PM IST
Her Health
5 min read

Pain is universal.

Yet, gender biases have crept into medical research time and again, severely impacting the way women's agonies are received, interpreted and eventually treated.

Consider these findings from across the world: Women in emergency departments who reported having acute pain were less likely to be prescribed opioid painkillers than men. If prescribed, they wait longer to receive them. Women were also seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack.

It’s not surprising then, that a survey found that over half of the women respondents thought of gender discrimination by doctors as a serious problem, as compared to just 36% of men.

Research on the subject is abundant. It is rooted in real incidents, experiences and struggles of women who have spent months — and even years — trying to convince everybody around that they are not 'faking it'. For many, this has risked them their lives.

It’s Not All in My Head: The Privilege of a Correct Diagnosis

The problem of neglect aggravates when women suffer from conditions that may be ‘invisible’ or lesser-known of — making it easier for a medical professional to attribute it to their poor mental health. FIT spoke with three women about their journeys — as they continue to try and understand their own bodies and minds, standing in the middle of a crowd that continues to dismiss their issues.

Namrata has an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto. It is a thyroid-related disease with severe long-term impacts. She’s suffered skin allergies, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, persistent fever, respiratory issues, gut pain, and even the early onset of menopause. She was only diagnosed after two years, by when she had already reached stage 2 of her condition (she is now on stage 4).

“I literally threatened my family doctor that I won’t leave the hospital until I am diagnosed. I was even put on cancer medication!”
Namrata

Namrata was an investment banker. She had to quit her job because of the overwhelming impact her disease started having on her daily life. Her doctors, colleagues, and superiors left no stone unturned in telling her that it’s just acidity, or anxiety, or her work stress that’s acting up. “The line of wisdom people come up with is infuriating. They tell me to meditate and forget about it!”

“I have had doctors tell me that Hashimoto is a made-up disease. People around me used to blame my busy work schedule and advised me to make lifestyle changes. In fact, my boss once said to me: You’re just trying to justify your mistakes with this fake diagnosis.”
Namrata

The phenomenon of bringing a woman’s experiences down to ‘psychology’ has been widely reported. Being misdiagnosed with depression could lead to frustration, which could further impact a person's mental health. It becomes an endless loop.

"You're overthinking."
"You're overthinking."
(Photo: iStockphoto)

For Jia, this loop made her spend almost ten years of her life in confusion, running from one doctor to another to try and understand the myriad of problems that she started experiencing with her body. As she talks to me now, she tells me she has rheumatoid arthritis, endometriosis, ulcerative colitis, Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), chronic fatigue, migraines, and asthma.

She has been battling these conditions for over ten years now. And even today, she hears the same things:

“Maybe you’re overworked.

“Are you sure it’s not just food poisoning?”

“You’re just tired because of the weather.”

“It’s just the flu. You’re overthinking.”

She adds, “I have very often sensed the disbelief and reluctance in doctors because of the invisibility of these conditions. Today, I am okay with not being fine. I have worked a lot on not hating my body. But this has required constant research and studying on my part, especially when common medicines lead to disastrous consequences in my case.”

Digging Deeper; Why Are Women Struggling to Be Trusted?

The problem is complex and multilayered, but an attempt to understand its roots would lead one to the problem of research bias in medicine. Men and women differ in more biological terms than is widely understood. Women have different pain receptors, symptoms, and experiences than men, while research is mostly conducted on their male counterparts; leaving doctors confused and dismissive.

For instance, many women may not experience evident chest pain during a heart attack, but they may experience pain in other parts such as the neck, arms or shoulders, or vomiting and nausea.

Putting it simply, the medical fraternity has been long trained to study, diagnose and treat patients based on research conducted on male physiology, leaving many professionals baffled and confused about women's pain and symptoms.

"It's Not Rare If It's Half the Population"

When women constantly experience disbelief on behalf of all others around them, they tend to either suffer in silence, or spend months or years fighting for some recognition. For Dr Anubha Mahajan, founder of Chronic Pain India, this struggle continues even today. After six years of suffering and being called 'chui mui' by doctors, she was finally diagnosed with 'Complex Regional Pain Syndrome' (CRPS), that affects her peripheral and central nervous systems.

“I was made to go through 5-6 psyche analyses in the course of these six years, because everyone around me was convinced it was psychological. Each time, I tested negative.”
Dr Anubha Mahajan

But her struggle didn't end after her diagnosis. She was bullied/harassed in dental school by her own guide, telling her that she had 'Munchausen syndrome' — a mental disorder in which a person pretends to have a physical or mental illness, when he or she is not actually sick — and constantly misdiagnosed as more complications emerged.

This is nothing less of mental torture, she tells FIT.

“Throughout this journey, you are constantly doubting yourself. Many women become hesitant to visit a doctor, often risking their lives in the process.”
Dr Anubha Mahajan

More gender-specific research would be a starting point to help half the population attain the treatment it truly needs and deserves. Until then, women will continue to juggle between the ignorance they receive from doctors, and the signs that their own bodies give them of something just 'not being right'.

As Namrata puts it, "Nobody deserves to live in pain, even if it's just a headache. A lot of damage in my case would have been saved, if only someone would have told me I'm not making it up, that it's real and it's happening, and here's what needs to be done."

(For long, women's health has been sidelined and put on the back burner, not taken seriously, not researched, not explored, silenced. FIT is launching its 'Her Health' campaign, that will focus on health stories that put women and their health issues front and centre. What would you like us to talk about? Write to us at FIT@thequint.com)

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Published: 11 Dec 2019, 12:10 PM IST

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