Women’s Pain is Often Ignored
A pregnant friend of mine was aghast. She’d just spoken to an acquaintance who encouraged her not to take an epidural during her upcoming labor. Taking an epidural was seen as weak, unwomanly: something she could do without.
“Is it okay if I ask for one?” she asked me, pale. “I’m worried about the pain.”
I told her to absolutely take it if she felt she needed it. After all, I get Novocaine when I get a cavity filled; why should a woman go without pain medication when giving birth?
But there is a widespread assumption, even in the medical field, that women don’t need pain relief. Women are treated less for pain, even for the same conditions, and wait longer for pain medications. I saw a recent story that described how women often get no pain management for IUD insertion. What’s going on?
The new book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez, explores how women suffer in a world designed for men.
The standard of medical care is still modeled after the health needs of men. For example, what are the classic symptoms of a heart attack? Chest pain, shortness of breath, pain radiating to your shoulder. Present at an ER with those, and you’re more likely to be whisked off, have your pain correctly identified, and treated.
But women’s symptoms can be very different. Would you think you were having a heart attack if you were covered with sweat, with pain in your neck or jaw? Probably not, but that’s what a heart attack can look like for a woman. This can lead to under-treatment in women, with deadly consequences. The phenomenon even has a name: Yentl syndrome.
Women’s health needs are different from men’s, but those differences aren’t always acknowledged. Or, we’re simply expected to deal with it. Take, for example, period pain. It’s caused by muscle contractions that can be agonizing and make it difficult to work. Nausea and diarrhea are common, too. But the treatments for period pain are still over-the-counter NSAIDs, like ibuprofen.
What if a woman’s pain is even worse — say, she has endometriosis? In Ask Me About My Uterus, Abby Norman details years of trying to get relief.
But it’s not just healthcare that lets women suffer.
My seat belt has never really fit me, a petite woman. It often catches on my shoulder, or slides around. Data shows that women also have to drive differently, leaning forward, because we tend to be shorter. This makes women 71% more likely to be injured and 17% more likely to die in a car crash.
But even taller women aren’t immune, as crash test dummies don’t account for differences in women’s bone shape, like the pelvis.
My experience with pain had been due to migraines, which primarily affect women. They go beyond headaches and can include unbearable pain, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
I’ve always had them treated appropriately by my doctors, but my treatment was delayed for years because people around me thought nothing was wrong.
They started when I was about 11. Family members thought I was vomiting and pale because of a “stomach flu,” even though no one else was sick. Teachers and bosses dismissed my headaches, thinking I was faking it.
I went to a seminar once where a doctorate-prepared healthcare professional said that you could stop migraine pain by squeezing one hand really hard. (Yes, I tried it. No, it didn’t work.)
I finally went to my doctor in college and got a diagnosis and prescription medications, which helped. I could’ve been pain-free much sooner if someone had believed me. But no one had.