‘How Bad is Your Pain?’: Women’s Healthcare Has a Chronic Problem

Leslie Owen | The Phoenix

I was 11.

I was a normal, active kid — one who spent most of her free time in the ballet studio or running around in her best friend’s yard. 

Then, all of a sudden and without warning, I was in constant physical pain. I missed days on end of school, filling my time with trips to the doctor. Since then, I’ve taken medication I didn’t need, got tested for conditions I didn’t have and made lifestyle changes I didn’t want.

It wasn’t until 10 years later that my condition finally had a name. Giving it a name is like giving it a body, one that follows you everywhere. It sits next to you on the bus, waits in line behind you in the grocery store and lies awake with you at night. 

Still, accepting my diagnosis comes easier than accepting the fact that my health felt ignored for years. It all comes down to one simple fact — women’s healthcare is not where it needs to be and something has to change.

Roughly a third of Americans suffer from chronic pain — more than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined — but according to Harvard Health, women make up a stunning 70% of that total. Despite that fact, 80% of pain studies are performed on male subjects.

This is the case with so many medical conditions. The majority of information that doctors use to understand and diagnose these conditions comes from studies conducted on men. Because of this, women exist and beg for diagnoses in a medical world that isn’t designed to help them.

Results from a 2021 study conducted by the University of Miami revealed even when men and women express the same level of pain, women’s pain is viewed as less significant or intense. The same study also showed that women were more likely to be recommended psychotherapy rather than medication, further perpetuating the myth that it’s “all in your head.”

We’ve all been asked the age old question at the doctor’s office: on a scale of one to 10, how bad is your pain? Even when women give their pain a 10, it’s still considered less than the pain of men due to gender-based stereotypes surrounding pain endurance and sensitivity.

It takes just three months for pain to become chronic, meaning it’s practically incurable. Chronic pain develops when your body consistently pushes through pain signals and in response, the central nervous system forces you to notice it by continuing to send those signals even when pain isn’t actually present.

We are doing women a disservice by not listening to or validating their health concerns early on. The earlier doctors start to address those concerns, the more likely it is that pain can be stopped before becoming chronic. 

My symptoms started when I was just a kid, too young to understand what was going on. I needed to be my biggest advocate, but I remember struggling to find the words to explain the pain I was feeling.

My mom drove me to my appointments, picked up medications and supplements for me and sat next to me on days that I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. 

She did this all after facing her own battle in the world of women’s health, undergoing treatment for breast cancer just a few months prior.

Thinking back on my own health journey, it’s hard not to think about all the ways I’ve been disadvantaged when seeking a diagnosis — my age, my gender and my, at the time, shyness. Despite that, it’s important to recognize how privileged I’ve been.

All the disparities in diagnosis previously described are amplified when the patient is a woman of color. Gender stereotypes regarding pain severity are even more prevalent for BIPOC women, who are also more likely to have their concerns dismissed.

Their voices are often drowned out in the examination room, silenced on social media and ignored at the hospital. It’s time for the healthcare system to change in this country — we are allowing women to be consumed by unknown conditions, forcing them to scream over the noise.

It’s time to amplify the demands of women for fair and equal medical care. My health conditions have become a part of my identity, and while I wouldn’t change that now, I can’t help but wonder who I would be if someone in a white coat had listened to 11-year-old me. 

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