Chronic Pain for Women is Often Underestimated
Whether it's the result of a chronic health condition, menstruation or reproductive health complications, chronic pain can impact our quality of life. Medical care for these problems usually requires an accurate diagnosis, which relies on persistence and self-advocacy. Having to bring these qualities to every doctor's visit can be as frustrating as the pain itself. In other words, if you're dealing with chronic pain, you need to be okay with being a chronic pain at your doctor's office, or else be prepared to find a doctor who will take you seriously.
Chronic pain in women is common
It's estimated 1 in 3 women in the United States suffers from chronic pain, a higher proportion than in men.
This is because women are more prone to complications and conditions responsible for recurrent and chronic pain, commonly, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and the many forms of arthritis. Unfortunately, once the diagnosis is made, your doctor can develop tunnel vision. Meaning, no matter the symptom, they tend to pass it off as just another side effect of said chronic condition. So what happens if a more serious condition arises? Oftentimes, it goes undiagnosed.
Unfortunately, no matter how clearly you express these symptoms, it's likely your doctor will underestimate how severe your chronic pain may be. This becomes especially dangerous when the pain indicates your original diagnosis was incorrect or that another more serious condition has occurred. Many doctors treat female pain first as a psychological condition before searching for a physical cause, according to research. This is often attributed to long-standing, gender-based medical stereotypes, since disproven.
The risks of not treating chronic pain
Reasons for differences in how women are treated by the medical community involve outdated research that implies women perceive pain differently and are more likely to see a doctor than men. These studies are flawed. While women do display pain symptoms differently, they are just as precise as men in describing and labeling their pain.
The unfortunate result of these misconceptions is that women are often viewed as being too acutely aware of their minor symptoms, misclassified as being overly sensitive and then referred to a counselor rather than diagnostic testing. This creates catastrophic risks, including misdiagnosis, which delays treatment for potentially life-threatening conditions.
In my own experiences dealing with chronic pain, I've gone from one doctor to the next complaining of chronic pelvic pain I fear is endometriosis. Unfortunately, despite my intricately detailed documentation, every doctor passes off my symptoms as fibromyalgia-related because that's the diagnosis reflected in my records.
For many women with chronic conditions, it's common for their complaints to go undiagnosed for years. Far too often, women have to go beyond self-advocacy and become belligerent about their condition. In my case, I had to demand a referral, and when it was issued, it was only to prove me wrong rather than in the hope of finding a cause for my concerns.
A 2016 study released by The Brain Tumour Charity found that on average, women had to go to their doctor five times before being referred for an MRI to rule out a brain tumor. If you stop to consider how long it takes to schedule and complete five doctor's visits, this can change the outcome of a cancer diagnosis from survival to terminal.
Find the right doctor
The key to getting an accurate diagnosis is being thorough in your documentation, consistent in your symptom descriptions and persistent in finding the right doctor. It's unfortunately true that many chronic conditions cause pain, but it's also true pain is a sign that something is wrong. Even if your search for answers confirms it's pain caused by your chronic conditions, this can be valuable information for treating and managing symptoms.