Why don’t we take women’s pain seriously?

Menstruation is a part of life, but pain doesn’t have to be

5 minute read
In profile, a young woman sits on the edge of a bed and leans over, clutching her head and stomach in pain.
The feminine urge to deny our pain? (Image via Shutterstock.)

A few weeks ago, I saw a TikTok from a teenage girl clutching her lower stomach in pain. She was on her period, and the text that hovered above her face said: “The feminine urge to see how long I can last with no painkillers.”

About a week later, I saw a Tweet from one of those massive Millennial meme accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers: “Girl math is not taking pain meds when you have cramps to see how long you can take the pain for, and if you take the meds, it means you’re weak.”

That’s why I started writing this piece.

I remember my last period without birth control vividly. I was 17. I had gone to a concert with a friend when I suddenly started to feel violently ill and could barely stand up. I went to the restroom at the venue, where I sat in a stall with my head between my legs and tried to regain my composure. Then and there, I decided I would never experience that kind of pain again. Fortunately, I was able to get the care that I needed, and I’ve been on birth control that makes my periods easier ever since. Many women are not so lucky.

Surgery and biopsies … without painkillers

Medical providers have long downplayed women’s pain. According to research cited in the Independent, medical professionals are much more likely to give sedatives to women in pain while men get painkillers. One study out of the University of Rhode Island found that women who received coronary bypass surgery were only half as likely as their male counterparts to be prescribed painkillers. Plus, women wait longer than men generally for diagnoses. The National Institutes for Health found that women wait an average of 65 minutes before receiving painkillers for acute abdominal pain while in the emergency room. The wait for men? Forty-five minutes.

When it comes to pain that cis men don’t experience—tender breasts, menstrual cramps, childbirth and its complications—women’s pain tends to be dismissed tenfold.

For people who suffer from endometriosis, “a disease in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus,” a monthly period can be debilitating. The disease typically leads to extremely heavy bleeding, cramps that begin before the period and extend afterward, and pain during intercourse and while using the bathroom. This pain typically occurs in the lower abdomen, lower back, pelvis, rectum, and vagina.

A 2021 focus group study conducted in the Netherlands found that almost all women who suffer from endometriosis feel their symptoms aren’t taken seriously by doctors, and almost all of them reported repeated consultations at a general practitioner’s office for a diversity of symptoms, which could later be attributed to the disease. These women perceived a lack of knowledge and skills concerning the disease. They were submitted to non-discriminatory tests, referred to incorrect medical specialists, or simply given numerous prescriptions for pain medication or contraceptive pills, often without the advice to take them continuously to manage the pain. Plus, some of these women were never even offered a gynecologic examination by their doctor, despite repeated reports of abdominal pain or problematic menstruation.

When women go to the doctor to have their intrauterine devices (IUDs) inserted (as with most contraceptives, these can also provide a range of medical benefits) or when they’re having a colposcopy, a procedure that closely examines the cervix for signs of cancer (and sometimes includes a biopsy), it’s typical for them not to receive any sort of pain medication from their doctors.

For women of color, the research isn’t much better. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center report, more than 70 percent of Black women between the ages of 18 and 49 said they’ve experienced at least one negative interaction with healthcare providers, including dismissal of their pain.

Is this normal?

Sure, some of this can be chalked up to the fact that generally, many people still believe that women have a higher pain tolerance than men, even though study after study has shown that the inverse is true: women are actually more sensitive to pain than men. Women are also at a greater risk than men of developing both chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain (chronic pain that limits work or daily life activities every day or on most days). In fact, 70 percent of the people affected by chronic pain are women, but 80 percent of pain studies are conducted on male mice or human men.

But medical professionals aren’t totally to blame. That 2021 study out of the Netherlands found that many of the women who participated delayed seeking care for their pain because they felt that it was normal—or their mothers and other women told them that it was.

For generations, women have learned that pain is a part of our existence, but in the modern world, that doesn’t have to be true. With the advent of Advil and other over-the-counter painkillers, most women are able to go about their daily lives despite challenging menstrual cycles. While hormonal contraceptives don’t actually treat endometriosis, they do help the most unpleasant symptoms: extreme pain and excessive menstrual bleeding. Modern medicine certainly still brings plenty of headaches for everyone who isn’t a cis man, but it definitely has its benefits.

Outside the doctor’s office, jokes like the ones I recently encountered on social media about women denying their own pain are just another symptom of a world that doesn’t take women’s suffering seriously. And now, that same dehumanization is behind the denial of necessary medical care to pregnant people across the US, as the fall of Roe v. Wade has driven actual or imminent abortion bans in nearly half the country. It’s time we took women’s pain seriously.

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