Science, Now + Beyond

Doctors still don’t take women’s pain seriously, for one dangerous reason

Women can't possibly experience actual pain, we're just overreacting.

We all know the symptoms of a heart attack, right? You’re probably thinking, “duh, chest and left arm pain.”

Turns out, that’s only true for men.

So even though heart attacks are just as common or even more common for women, most of us don’t even know the symptoms to look out for. Women tend to get upper back pain, nausea, or fatigue as symptoms of heart attack.

For some, this difference is deadly – for several reasons.

Not only is our pain not well-known as symptomatic of various sicknesses … but doctors ignore it or think we’re overreacting. And research suggests that this may be the case for other diseases, such as depression, as well.

Apart from differences in symptoms, the medical community doesn’t always do right by women in pain. Studies show that doctors are biased against women’s pain, and are likely to prescribe less pain medication. Because we’re women. But they are more likely to prescribe sedatives, because women are considered more anxious about procedures. While the intersection between physical and psychological pain is complex, and difficult to understand, prescribing sedatives in a situation where painkillers are required will leave a lot of women in pain. Even those who set out to study pain in men vs. women sometimes fail to reach conclusive results.

Then there’s the class of diseases and problems that apply only to women. Of course, many of these have to do with menstruation, like endometriosis or primary dysmenorrhea, or childbirth. Endometriosis is when tissue that lines the uterus starts to grow on other organs where it shouldn’t grow. The body doesn’t know how to react, so it scabs over this tissue, which can be incredibly painful. There is currently no known way to treat it permanently. Primary dysmenorrhea is the medical diagnosis for particularly painful periods.

But doctors can only speculate on what causes this disorder. And again, treatments usually focus on dulling the pain instead of ending it.

There is a general lack of knowledge about both of these conditions. Because when scientists do try to get funding to research diseases that affect women, they find it difficult to convince financiers that these issues deserve attention.

One thing that makes treating or curing women’s pain so difficult is the fact that women are underrepresented in studies. This happens, particularly in sports studies. In a controlled experiment, scientists should keep all the variables the same, but menstruation changes hormone levels in ways that are difficult to understand.

So many researchers will leave women out of sports trials, or test them at a point where their hormone levels are the same as a man. This starts a vicious cycle of not knowing how menstruation affects women, and then not studying them because of it, which leads to a lack of medical knowledge that doctors have on women.

So how do we fix this?

Women need to talk about it with each other and with medical professionals. We need to be the medical professionals who are listening to patients and doing the research. And we need to bring these issues to light and make it well-known. This may lead to more research, more funding, and a better understanding of the issues involved.

We deserve to live healthier, pain-free lives as women.  

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