Gender Pain Bias: What a Pain In The Lass!

Published on 11 Dec 2023

‘Gender pain bias’ refers to the phenomenon in which a woman’s pain is poorly understood and often underestimated and mistreated in comparison to men’s pain, due to gender stereotypes and biases. These gender stereotypes expose a significant gender bias, leading to disparities in medical treatment and intervention.

Despite one in six women experiencing severe pain every day, they can often be perceived by doctors to be oversensitive to pain and exaggerate their symptoms. This belief not only can lead to under-treatment but also illnesses and diseases being misdiagnosed or even missed entirely.

There is a false belief that women have a lower pain threshold than men and based on this belief, men are more likely to be taken seriously when reporting pain to their doctor. This can have a devastating impact for women if a medical professional shuts-down their symptoms and perception of pain.

Statistically, women are more likely than men to report their pain to a doctor, which begs the question: why does society encourage men to speak to someone but then downplay women when they do the same? In the UK, a survey of 5,100 women and men revealed that 56% of women feel their pain is ignored or dismissed by medical professionals. Studies have shown that this is often because women are perceived as being more expressive, such that their pain is often discounted (in a ‘the boy who cried wolf’ type of way). In contrast, men can be perceived to be more stoic when suffering pain, therefore there can be an assumption that they must be in absolute agony to have finally reported it.

A prime example of this bias is when women report issues with their menstrual cycle to their GP – a common issue and yet one that is commonly misunderstood. Perhaps a young girl is having excruciating pain and is unable to attend school or can’t come to work because she can’t stand up without crying and the only thing that helps her is a boiling hot water bottle which leaves a heat rash on her belly. Despite clearly being in pain and suffering, a GP may not offer a sympathetic ear as ‘every girl gets a period’ and recommend taking pain-killers and told to “get on with it’ because ‘periods are meant to hurt’. But what happens if there is actually something sinister going on? What if, by dismissing those concerns, a completely treatable disease becomes significantly worse, or even incurable?

It might sound like I am being cynical but sadly I have personal experience of my pain symptoms not being properly understood. I suffered with excruciating pain for a long time, leading to my inability to attend work, social events or having to skip commuting to college and university because I simply could not stand up. I attended my local GP over a long time and was constantly met with glazed over eyes just waiting for me to stop complaining, swiftly followed by that same discouraging phrase every time, ‘we will monitor your symptoms and see how you get on’. After many (very many) months of ‘monitoring my symptoms’ I put my foot down and was finally referred to a specialist.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) the specialist explained that she saw this all the time. A mildly reassuring, yet frightening phrase - one that made me feel like I was finally in the right hands, yet at the same time angry that this happens to women all the time. So when I was asked to write this blog post, I immediately knew this was the topic I wanted to write about.

I had always known that the pain I was in was not, in fact, normal. I finally felt calm and reassured that someone was actually listening to me and that my pain was real. Following my consultation with the specialist, I underwent surgery, and I’m pleased to say this has brought me relief from my symptoms.

But, I did have to ask myself – why did no one believe just how much pain I was really in? Why did I have to demand to be taken seriously? Unfortunately, this is the case for many women up and down the country. It may be uncomfortable for a patient to challenge a doctor, but they should feel empowered to say something when they know something is not right.

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