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Prejudice against Women Living with Chronic Pain

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Reprinted with the kind permission of Celeste Cooper
September is chronic pain awareness month and a perfect time to recognize that when it comes to chronic pain, women are treated differently than men.
There is a centuries old bias against women. Societal beliefs and recriminations have blamed women for their pain, calling us “hysterical.” Today—not much has changed. Our pain remains misunderstood, mistreated, undertreated, and sometimes untreated altogether — simply because we are women. The gender gap between men and women is more like a chasm. 
If you are interested in learning more about what I have to say, please read Women, Pain, Bias, and Discrimination.
Women’s Experience with Chronic Pain

Do women experience chronic pain differently?

The answer is yes.

A review of over 450 epidemiologic studies clearly demonstrates women are at a significantly greater risk for developing chronic pain. As females, we have a cornucopia of possible chronic pain generators, some dominant in women and others are specific to our gender. Disorders and diseases that cause pain range from pelvic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, to menstruation, female related surgeries, child bearing, etc. Hormonal differences and genetics also influence our pain. We tend to be more sensitive to pain—not the same as tolerance—and the character of our pain can be different because of the source, such as childbirth. And, the words we use to describe our pain also play a role in the way our pain is judged.
There’s no doubt our pain experience and the way we relate to it are different from our male counterparts.

“Our health care provider’s words matter too. We should feel safe when communicating our concerns and symptoms and never judged for having a medical condition that has no cure. Our provider should be part of our team, part of our plan, not part of the problem. When we feel heard, we do better.”  [Excerpt] Chronic Pain, Women, and Words

In my blog, The Painful Truth: A Book, a Documentary, a Meeting with Lynn Webster, MD (pain specialist, author, and producer), I wrote about something Dr. Webster said at a PAINS symposium. It resonated with me, and I will likely never forget it. He said he always asked his patients, “What do you want [from pain care]?” The answer was always the same, “Doc, I just want my life back.” He heard this same response repeatedly. Dr. Webster witnessed a primal release of emotions from his patients when he replied…

“I believe you.”

Trust is important to every chronic pain patient, particularly those groups who have been identified as being treated with bias. It’s not just women who suffer the consequences of disbelief, judgment, and discrimination. We all need to be heard and for our care providers to believe what we say. If our provider is disinterested, they are not to be trusted. Trust, like communication, takes two.
I think our understanding of pain experiences between men and women has a long way to go, as does our understanding of chronic pain in general. However, when we look at the influence gender has on chronic pain, we can say — women experience and report pain differently. 
Women are more likely to be wrongly diagnosed, and possibly told to take an antidepressant for their unspoken “hysteria.” Some of us are told to go home and rest until it passes, or we feel unheard and dismissed like a student sent to detention for misbehaving.
Despite the IOM report Relieving Pain in America telling us there is bias and discrimination against women and the National Pain Strategy telling us stigma and vulnerability exists, particularly in women exhibiting pain from conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, we wait for change.
If you have suffered as a result, you might find the Guidelines for Pain Warriors on my website helpful.
Additional Reading
Two interviews this past year with two brave women:

In healing, Celeste

“Adversity is only an obstacle if we fail to see opportunity.”


Celeste Cooper, RN, is a frequent contributor to ProHealth.  She is an advocate, writer and published author, and a person living with chronic pain. Celeste is lead author of Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain and Broken Body, Wounded Spirit, and Balancing the See Saw of Chronic Pain (a four book series). She spends her time enjoying her family and the rewards she receives from interacting with nature through her writing and photography. You can learn more about Celeste’s writing, advocacy work, helpful tips, and social network connections at CelesteCooper.com.

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