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Lena Dunham after being hospitalised with endometriosis earlier this monthvia @lenadunham / Instagram

How female pain is treated differently at the doctors

From endometriosis to the contraceptive pill, recent studies have revealed that women’s health problems are being regularly neglected

It’s 2017 and we have made some serious strides for women’s rights – but we’re not done yet. While a pay gap between the sexes may be well-documented, the gender pain gap often goes unchecked.

If, like me, you’re a woman who has battled with reproductive health, heavy and painful periods, anxiety and depression, you may understand the frustration of desperately trying to be taken seriously by doctors and medical professionals. After seven years of sometimes crippling anxiety, abnormal menstrual cycles, and all the dread, pain and sleep deprivation that goes with it, I recently had my eureka moment with a hormone specialist. Without getting too technical, a severe lack of progesterone – a hormone that regulates anxiety, weight and reproductive cycles – is the simple answer that has been there all along, just one simple blood test away.

However, instead of feeling relieved or happy, I feel angry. Angry about the countless doctors I tried to convince of my pain and mental health struggles, the hundreds of hours spent googling symptoms and being convinced I was dying every time, and the cavalier way my ‘female angst’ was brushed aside time and time again and antidepressants were thrown at me. I once saw a doctor so uncomfortable talking about women’s health, he refused to use the clinical word “vagina”. Another told me conclusively, without any tests, that my pelvic pain was due to an STI because I’m a sexually active woman in my 20s. It wasn’t. Is this the best we can do?

“Recent studies have found that women with severe pain will suffer longer in A&E, sedative drugs are prescribed more readily for female patients, and the number of misdiagnoses of common conditions is far higher among women”

The problems I’ve faced aren’t rare. Speaking to friends, colleagues, my family, even women in doctors waiting rooms, pain and illness, both physical and psychological, are diagnosed along gendered lines. Recent studies have found that women with severe pain will suffer longer in A&E, sedative drugs are prescribed more readily for female patients, and the number of misdiagnoses of common conditions is far higher among women. 

Endometriosis, described by many sufferers as “chronic pain”, takes some estimated seven-and-a-half years and 10 doctor visits to diagnose. Arguably, Lena Dunham’s campaign for greater endometrioses awareness has done more for the condition than the current research, or lack thereof. And, John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, concluded last year that period pain can be as “bad as having a heart attack”, saying “men don’t get it so it hasn’t been given the centrality it should have.”

We, as a society, have always looked to science and medical research to give us the answers. And I’m not trashing the medical industry on the whole; so much of the work done by doctors and researchers is absolutely groundbreaking. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be questioned. As a journalist, whose scientific education came to a screeching halt after compulsory GCSEs, I have taken the advice of my GP or specialist physician point blank, without question. “They know more than I do” has been my way of reckoning with mixed messages and, sometimes, frankly bad treatment. I now realise that medicine, just like science, is a subjective force, open to interpretation and manipulation, and capable of ignoring or being hostile towards entire social groups.

I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised. If history has taught us anything, science can be spun to support any line of argument, no matter how abhorrent. ‘Official’, government-funded research has previously managed to ‘prove’ that black people are less than human, that women have half the brain capacity of men, and that being gay is caused by a recessive disease. Maybe the optimist in me hoped that we had lived beyond ill-informed and biased scientific analysis. Naïve, I know. If we just look at the ways birth control is prescribed and studied, it’s not hard to see that reproduction itself is entirely sexist.

The first comprehensive study examining the impact of hormonal contraceptives on women’s well-being was published last month, and the results aren’t pretty. Conducted by the Karolinska Instutet in Stockholm, the study found that “oral contraceptives reduce general well-being in healthy women”. Shocker. Having previously been on two kinds of birth control pill and the hormone injection, I can put my hands up and say this is a gross understatement. Tremors, mood swings, weight gain, bad skin, and depressive thoughts are just some of the nasty side-effects. And to add insult to injury, a male birth control shot has been found to be 96 per cent effective but was abandoned by researchers because knock-on effects caused anxiety, acne, decreased libido and mood disorders in some subjects. Sound familiar? Although both men and women are responsible for pregnancy, the burden of preventing it falls on the woman. Our mental and physical health is deemed less important and less worthy of comprehensive medical research. Perhaps in decades to come the gender pain gap will have shifted, but I’m not holding my breath.