Period pain is the real deal - so why do doctors tell you that it is just a matter of some Midol? Our guest blogger Mika Doyle digs into how sexism in health care is hurting those who need help the most.
Doctors are gaslighting period pain, and it’s having serious consequences for those who experience severe menstrual pain symptoms. Maya Dusenbury, author of Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, said that sexism in health care has caused the “pain and illnesses [of people with uteruses to be] overlooked because of their menstrual cramps, menopause, even entering motherhood.” And the research backs Dusenbury up.
Gender Bias in Medical Research
Medical research has a history of favoring cis men. According to Broadly, doctors actually base their pain management treatment on male physiology because medical research typically uses cismale subjects and ignores medical conditions experienced primarily by people with uteruses. “Although 90 percent of [people with uteruses] report at least one PMS symptom, five times as many studies have been dedicated to erectile dysfunction, a problem experienced by 19 percent of men,” Broadly reports. And according to Harvard Health Publishing, even though 70 percent of the people who experience chronic pain are people with uteruses, 80 percent of pain studies are conducted on male mice or cis men.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most people with uteruses who were potentially able to have children were excluded from clinical drug trials until 1993, so most pain medications were only tested on cis men until fairly recently. And that gender bias continued after people with uteruses were admitted into drug trials. Broadly reported that the Journal of Women’s Health found that only 24 percent of participants in 46 drug trials from 2004 were people with uteruses, and the median enrollment of people with uteruses in federally funded clinical trials in 2009 was only 37 percent. In other words, researchers are testing drugs on only one kind of body with totally different hormones.
But the gender bias goes even further than lack of research, extending to a cultural phenomenon that dates back to ancient Greece when people with uteruses were labeled “hysterical” if they complained of ailments that couldn’t immediately be explained. Although the term is no longer used today, the sentiment persists as an implicit bias that manifests as delayed medical treatment or misdiagnoses. “It takes women ages to get treated because they get labeled psychiatric cases and that’s it,” novelist Porochista Khakpour told DAME. Khakpour said that people with uteruses “often end up being sick longer because society doesn’t hear them, or believe them, and they second-guess their symptoms.”
Researcher Dr. Annalise Weckesser agrees with Khakpour. She told the Independent that “there is a long history of not taking menstrual pain seriously and even writing it off as women’s hysteria. We don’t talk about menstrual health; young girls' knowledge about menstrual health is poor.”
Missed Diagnoses and Misdiagnoses - Because Of A Lack Of Research
Given the history of gender bias in pain management in general, it’s sadly no shock that as recently as last year the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that there’s a “remarkable lack of research and understanding around period pain.” That means people with uteruses are suffering severe period pain for years without a proper diagnosis.
Now medical experts in the UK are recommending that people with uteruses who are experiencing severe period pain get checked for endometriosis out of concern that too many primary care physicians are missing this diagnosis, The Telegraph reports. The Telegraph says endometriosis occurs in around one in 10 people with uteruses and can damage fertility, but of the 2,600 people who gave evidence at Parliament in March, 40 percent had seen a doctor 10 times before getting a diagnosis.
Jillian Neckar told The Independent that her primary care physician her told her that “the pain was likely in my head, and I should get therapy to deal with it. They refused to prescribe any painkillers. At that point, I gave up. I was tired of fighting, so I started to believe that I was making up the pain.” Unfortunately, Neckar’s isn’t an isolated case. The Independent reports that a study published in March found that doctors aren’t addressing their patients’ psychological and social concerns when it comes to their period pain. In other words, they’re gaslighting them, leaving them to deal with their pain alone.
Gender bias in health care isn’t just about microaggressions in behavior. It can cause delayed care, missed diagnoses, misdiagnoses, and even death. If you’re experiencing severe period pain, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have endometriosis, but it couldn’t hurt to talk to your doctor about whether you should get checked out for the condition. If they refuse to test for endometriosis, insist until they do or find a new doctor. Remember, you are the best advocate for your health.