In ancient Greece, a woman who complained of pain—or one who acted outside the limited social norm available to her—was thought to be suffering from “wandering womb,” which was closely related to hysteria. The uterus was thought to float free within a woman’s body and cause all kinds of medical and emotional issues.
The cure, for the most part, was marriage.
Of course, that’s silly, but consider how far we haven’t come in the treatment of women’s complaints about pain. Recent data on women’s shoddy treatment by health care providers paints a stunning picture of medical apathy and worse.
• If you’re a woman, and you go to the emergency room with acute abdominal pain, your average wait time to receive medicine is 65 minutes. A man’s average wait time is 49 minutes.
• If you’re a woman, and you go to the emergency room with acute abdominal pain, your chances of receiving a sedative are far greater than your chances of receiving pain medication. In fact, you’re 13 to 25% less likely than your male counterparts to receive that pain medicine.
• If you’re a woman, and you have coronary bypass surgery, your doctors and nurses are half as likely to give you pain medication in the first three days after your procedure as they are to give pain medication to a man undergoing the surgery.
• If you’re a woman, and you have cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death among U.S. women—you are seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed—and perhaps discharged—during a heart attack.
According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, a Washington, D.C.-based organization of scientists, clinicians, health care providers, and policymakers, painful conditions that tend to affect women more than men include fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and classic migraines.
Women tend to have different symptoms than do men, but medical science still too often uses the male body and experience as the medical model. That leaves a woman who has endometriosis or other painful medical conditions more often experienced by women a bit at sea, unless she finds the proper clinician.
The lack of attention goes from the examining room to research labs. Research into endometriosis, for example, where tissue that normally grows inside a woman’s uterus grows elsewhere and affects roughly one in 10 women, is woefully underfunded. A woman can await a proper diagnosis of this sometimes-debilitating condition for as long as 12 years.
As with everything in the health field, women of color are hit hardest by the male-model mentality. Nine of 10 people with lupus are women, and lupus is three times more common in African American women than in white women. More than half of women with lupus say they suffered with symptoms—which include (but are not limited to) fatigue, headaches and joint pain—for four years or more, and saw at least three different doctors before being properly diagnosed.
And the misdiagnoses start early. A Yale study published in January in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology showed that adults charged with assessing the pain of children were more likely to think boys experienced more pain than girls. As the study noted, accurate assessments of patients’ pain are critical for proper treatment.
We need parity. Women’s health needs research funding, and we need serious clinicians who will pay attention to their complaints. Last year, science writer Abby Norman’s “Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain,” explored living with endometriosis. She got her doctor’s attention only when she brought her boyfriend along to one of her exams. She wrote, “Becoming a disappointment to a man seemed to do the trick.”
As Maya Dusenbery writes in her 2018 book, “Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick,” “how many cases of so-called hysteria could have been prevented if women’s unexplained pain was taken seriously from the start?”
But research can only point out the gaps. It’s up to women to speak up, take note, and insist their medical care providers listen.
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.