The Gender Pain Gap: Why Does Male Pain Get Taken More Seriously

Credit: Ellen van Engelen for NY Times

Credit: Ellen van Engelen for NY Times

Here’s a conundrum - why does the medical profession take male pain more seriously than female pain?

There are a variety of theories and most are historical;

  • Male bodies have traditionally been the main focus for medical research and drug testing hence the medical profession are more comfortable in treating men.

  • There is a cultural tradition that regards women as unreliable witnesses. Women know periods and sex can be painful. It sets a precedent and acceptance that pain is unavoidable and simply just has to be tolerated.

  • “Monthly abdominal pain - being a normal feature of women lives gives doctors an easy way to brush off female pain” says Dr Adam Kay, author of This Is Going To Hurt “but it is also because they subconsciously (and wrongly) think women have a lower pain threshold and they take pain more seriously in men” he adds.

  • Female pain is often put down to hysteria

Due to these misconceptions; endometriosis, gastro conditions, severe period cramping, cancers and heart conditions can often be mis-diagnosed or even left untreated. But what can we do?

Since medical professionals not only take women’s pain less seriously than men’s, but often misdiagnose it as being emotional in nature, convincing our doctors to listen to us is no easy feat. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make sure they’re paying attention.

  • Keep a detailed record of your symptoms, doctor’s visits, medications, hospitalisations, and surgeries. Bring it with you when you know you’ll be seeing a doctor (especially a new one).

  • If a doctor is disregarding your symptoms or claiming they are emotional problems, you’re well within your rights to disagree. Explain why you take issue with their diagnosis and give them evidence to back up why you think they’re wrong.

  • If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, bring someone with you who can serve as an advocate.

  • Patient satisfaction is becoming increasingly important to hospitals. If you have a bad experience, write a letter of concern to the hospital administrator.

  • You know your body better than anyone else. Don’t let anyone gaslight you or make you feel like your pain isn’t real. If you know something is wrong and your doctor is failing in their duty to help you, seek second, third, fourth, or however many opinions you need.

As women we need to know what pain is considered normal. If we talk to friends and colleagues about symptoms and pain levels we can build our own picture of what is normal for us. We also need to have confidence in our knowledge of our own bodies. If we feel that what we are experiencing is “out of the ordinary” trust your instincts. Don’t allow yourself to be fobbed off by medical professionals who don’t appear to be taking your concerns seriously. After all no-one understands your body better than you do. Insist on thorough examinations and ask for blood tests and referrals if you think they are appropriate. Do your homework before your consultation and be clear about your expectations.

No one should be expected to put up with pain in the long term. Knowing when to seek advice for pain is critical. Dr Claire Rushton - Vice Chair of the Family Doctor Association advises the following:-

If you are suffering from a new pain you can’t explain, that lasts for 3-4 days get it checked out, particularly if it doesn’t respond to painkillers.

Pain accompanied by other symptoms such as vaginal discharge or leg swelling see a GP asap.

Chronic pain that isn’t being controlled by current medication and keeps escalating needs reviewing.

Severe pain that comes on suddenly and unexpectedly and keeps you awake at night needs a GP appointment.

Period pain for many needs painkillers but if the pain is crippling and lasts for more than 24-48hrs every month then seek medical advice. Extreme chronic period pain is not normal and isn’t just something women have to put up with.

The attitude towards female pain is changing as more research is done into the female body and how it behaves but this research is decades behind the research that exists on the male form so until the medical profession catches up, trust your instincts - if you feel something is wrong, talk to your friends and family, get medical advice and get taken seriously.