The other day, I came across an article in The Atlantic that was published five years ago on female pain. Joe Fassler, the writer, described his wife’s traumatic experience in an emergency room where her unbearable pain was dismissed for 14-and-a-half hours. The woman in question, Rachel, had PCOS. As a result, an ovarian cyst grew undetected for so long that it caused her fallopian tube to twist. This is called ovarian torsion which was mistaken for kidney stones under a male doctor who barely took the time to do a physical exam on his female patient.
Disbelief of female pain is rampant.
Rachel withered in pain, knuckles white and face scrunched, for hours on end while nurses patted her head condescendingly, patients slept peacefully next to her, and doctors fluttered around attending to patients in order of arrival rather than the severity of symptoms. All while Rachel’s ovary was dying.
My heart ached for Rachel and I am grateful to say that I have yet to share in her trauma. The day I was diagnosed with PCOS, I woke up with sharp pains in my abdomen that radiated down to my toes. I was seventeen years old and my dad had to drag my weak body to the car. I barely remember the drive to my family doctor or what he had said to me up until the ultrasound occurred. But when it did, up popped up a blurry spot on my left ovary. The source of all my trouble was approximately 4cm in diameter, weighing down on my ovary, and caused a debilitating pain that is exclusive to this condition.
The dismissal and disbelief of female pain are rampant in the medical field. There is case piled upon case of how doctors tend to categorize the pain of women as “all in their head”. PMS and reproductive health have been longstanding points of debacle in the history of disbelieving female pain. PMS was originally (and still to this day by those who cringe at the word “vagina”) thought to only exist in the imagination of women as an excuse to mood swings or irritation. In my experience, any form of emotional showcase boils down to, “Is it that time of the month for you?”
Our pain is not worthy of concern – not even from ourselves.
Female hysteria dates back to 1900 BC in which ancient Egypt attributed the ‘disorder’ to “spontaneous uterus movement within the female body”. In the Greek world, hysteria was also tied back to the uterus. Hippocrates believed that due to an inadequate sex life, the uterus “not only [produced] toxic fumes but also [took] to wandering around the body, causing various kinds of disorders such as anxiety and a sense of suffocation.” I don’t know about you, but I tend to experience PMS regardless of whether I am actively having sex or not.
These ideologies may have been done away with, however, the gender bias still exists.
In a 2001 study titled “The Girl Who Cried Pain, A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain,” it was seen that women are “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients’.” This is known, in the medical community, as ‘Yentl Syndrome’.
In Gabrielle Jackson’s book Pain and Prejudice, the endometriosis patient highlights that “women wait longer for pain medication than men, wait longer to be diagnosed with cancer, are more likely to have their physical symptoms ascribed to mental health issues, are more likely to have their heart disease misdiagnosed or to become disabled after a stroke, and are more likely to suffer illnesses ignored or denied by the medical profession.”
There seems to an unspoken agreement that female pain is either imagined or exaggerated. Even women themselves hesitate to go to an emergency room when in pain in fear of making a mountain out of a molehill. We are taught that our pain is normal and therefore not worthy of concern – not even from our ourselves.
These disparities in health treatment go even further. Studies show that if you aren’t wealthy, white, or heterosexual then you are less likely to be given the same quality of treatment than if you were.
Better to be wrong than dead.
Doctors downplaying or outright denying pain experienced by a female or pain exclusive to females is undeniably an issue that needs to be rectified in fears of it being fatal. If it, unfortunately, does happen to you, however, Dr. Tia Powell, a bioethicist and a professor of clinical epidemiology and population health, suggests three things to do: ask your doctor for guidelines on their recommendation; be direct with your doctor and make your concern for their dismissal known; check your own bias towards your pain – you would rather be wrong than dead.
In some ways, I am lucky to have a father who did not hesitate to believe my pain on the day I was diagnosed with PCOS. In more ways, I am angry at myself and the world to have to consider my position of having a male believe me as “lucky” when it should, in fact, be a norm. Rachel still relives that traumatic day through nightmares. However, she is alive and well… some women aren’t as lucky.