There’s nothing worse than being in terrible pain — except, perhaps, for being in terrible pain and having no one believe you.
Casey B., a tattooed mother of two, is no wuss when it comes to pain. So, when her stomach started hurting, at first she brushed it off. But as the pain became unbearable and then diarrhea started, she realized it was something serious and went in to see her doctor. Instead of examining her though, he told her she probably “just had bad menstrual cramps” and they’d go away with a little rest.
“I told him I don’t get cramps and this was not that at all. Since I’d been on the pill for years, I didn’t even have periods anymore,” Casey explains. “He then told me to stop taking my pills for a week to force my period to start because my ‘uterus was probably too full of blood from not menstruating’ and that was what was causing the pain!”
She rejected his insane advice (Does he even know how a uterus works?), but went home anyhow. Less than 24 hours later she was in the emergency room, bleeding from her rectum. It turned out she had a serious E. coli infection — a bacteria that sickens about 300,000 people a year and kills 60, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Casey recovered quickly after receiving the proper treatment, but her case is not unique. The fact that her doctor assumed that her pain wasn’t as severe as she reported and automatically attributed it to her female organs — simply because she is female — is a situation that many, many women find themselves in.
In a landmark study aptly titled “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain,” the researchers concluded that, overall, women are “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients'” — a phenomenon colloquially known as “Yentl Syndrome.” According to the authors, women are far more likely to be seen as exaggerating their symptoms, accused of being hypochondriacs or told all their symptoms are from “stress” or “anxiety.”
This propensity to dismiss women’s symptoms isn’t just annoying, it can have real, and severe, health consequences. Sometimes it results in death. One large study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that doctors are more likely to write off heart attack symptoms when a woman has them, and a separate study confirmed the findings, adding that while men have more heart attacks, women are 60 percent more likely to die from them — at least partly from the increased length of time it takes for them to receive care.
And even when the results aren’t life or death, ignoring a woman’s pain can have life-altering consequences. In a moving essay for The Atlantic, writer Joe Fassler details his wife’s harrowing experience when an extremely painful ovarian torsion (twisted ovary) was misdiagnosed as kidney stones. “Rachel’s physical scars are healing, and she can go on the long runs she loves, but she’s still grappling with the psychic toll — what she calls ‘the trauma of not being seen,'” he writes. “She has nightmares, some nights. I wake her up when her limbs start twitching.”
Rachel clearly isn’t the only woman suffering from this trauma of not being seen as a human being. And the only way to help these silenced women is to start hearing to them. So, I put out a call asking for stories and was blown away by how many I received in just a few short hours. This experience is sadly not rare.
1. “It’s just whiplash.”
“After a car accident last November, I had severe neck pain. I went to the ER and they told me it was a slight concussion and whiplash, giving me painkillers without even examining me. But the pain just got worse and worse. Everyone, even my parents, told me, ‘It’s just whiplash, you’re a hypochondriac, you’re overreacting’. After two months of this, I finally got an MRI done and it turned out I had two discs that were so severely herniated, they were pushing on my spinal cord. I ended up needing multi-level spinal fusion surgery. And I’m still in pain.” — Michelle G.
2. “It’s just groin strain.”
“A physical therapist told me I had a groin strain and kept sighing when I said it was still too sore to run. He told me I should try harder and rolled his eyes at me. It turns out it was a pelvic stress fracture.” — Grainne M.
3. “It’s just gas.”
“When I was 18, I went to the ER with sharp abdominal pain. They told me it was just gas and sent me home. I had the same sharp pain several times for months after, but I was so embarrassed that they told me I had gas that I didn’t want to go back. After months of suffering, I finally found out I had gallstones. They had to remove my gall bladder and because I’d waited so long it was infected, which lead to kidney failure. I was in the hospital for over a week when all was said and done…and was still embarrassed that some doctors in the ER really thought I’d just gone to the hospital because I had gas.” — Sarah G.
4. “It’s just normal pain.”
My periods were incredibly painful as a young adult, but two separate doctors dismissed my claims as ‘just normal pain’ even though I would be curled up in pain on the floor, throwing up for the first couple of days of each cycle. It was made worse by the fact that my teachers and employers didn’t believe a period could be bad enough to miss work. Eventually I found a doctor who sent me for an ultrasound only to discover severe endometriosis and cysts. It still bothers me that it took almost a decade before somebody listened to me.” — Amalia B.
5. “It’s just pain during sex.”
“I had pain during intercourse and I talked to my female gynecologist about it, she said I needed to toughen up, that sometimes women had pain during sex and it was just kind of the way things were. I was pretty pissed off after that appointment so I immediately made an appointment with a different doctor and he discovered that the way my hymen tore was causing the pain and that I needed to have a little bit removed. Outpatient surgery and 20 minutes later I was much better.” — Angela S.
6. “It’s because you just had a baby.”
“After I had my first baby, I had gastrointestinal pain that I thought was bad reflux or maybe an ulcer. I went to a new doctor who talked right over me and wrote off all of my symptoms as being due to post pregnancy and caring for a newborn. Years later I realized I had gallstones.” — Katie W.
7. “It’s all in your head.”
“When my daughter was a year old, I started getting weird symptoms — I could hear my heartbeat in my ear and my vision was hazy and spotty. At first I chalked it up to the fluorescent lights in my office and too much computer time. But it got worse, so I went to a doctor. He ran a hearing test, which I passed, and then (I’ll never forget this!) told me to quit being a baby and get to work, that it was all in my head. A few days later a co-worker was standing in my office doorway and I could only see part of her face. She insisted I get in to an eye doctor. After an emergency appointment, I found out I had a Pseudotumor Cerebri and was literally losing my sight. I had to have my spinal fluid drained. Had I waited much longer I would have had permanent vision loss. I’m so thankful I listened to my co-worker and not that doctor; it could have ended so differently for me.” — Tracy C.