I hate wake-up calls. Those behavior-changing moments that arise, usually, as a result of someone else’s tragedy.
My wake-up call recently happened after losing a friend whose pain was repeatedly dismissed by her doctor. Who kept telling her it was all stress and all she needed was to take two Robaxisal. She accepted the doctor’s diagnosis until the pain, which wasn’t going away, became too great to ignore. But by then it was too late.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a story. But this one gutted me like no other.
I’ve written before about women’s health being under-researched, underfunded, and underserved. But a more serious issue persists – when our pain or symptoms are abruptly dismissed or minimalized as psychological, as in a physical manifestation of stress, anxiety, and frustration.
So, instead of waiting for the medical profession to change, I’ve come to the realization that women have to take charge – find their voice in the doctor’s office and turn up the volume if necessary. It can be a challenge. People know I’m not exactly the shy and retiring sort, yet I continue to feel intimidated by most Doctors. It’s not rational, but I’ve always felt weak and at a loss for words.
THE STAKES ARE HIGH
- The statistics are frightening. Women are diagnosed with cancer more than two years later than men and diabetes 4.5 years later according to one large study from Denmark.
- For diseases that are diagnosed more commonly or only in women, including fibroids, endometriosis, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune diseases, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, getting an accurate diagnosis can take five to ten years and require seeing multiple healthcare providers.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic pain is more prevalent among women due to fewer opioid receptors in their brains, along with hormonal differences. It is likely that medical professionals understand men’s pain more than women’s because the majority of research studies on pain include men, despite the fact that 70 percent of chronic pain is experienced by women. Nearly 90 percent of pain studies are conducted on males or on male mice.
- A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack. As well, women are more likely to be dismissed from emergency rooms when suffering from potentially fatal pain, like heart attacks.
- One of the reasons could be that although both genders experience chest tightness as a heart-attack symptom, women are more likely to experience nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, and pain in the back of the jaw, symptoms some doctors overlook.
- Women are diagnosed later for heart disease, not only because it is still largely considered a 'man's disease', but also because our diagnostic tests are male-biased, in terms of 'typical' being the male presentation.
THE SOLUTION - SELF ADVOCACY
The best way to advocate for yourself is to stay educated. By arming themselves with a more thorough understanding of the differences and complexities of female pain, women can be better equipped to advocate for themselves when seeking medical attention.
Women should stay on top of their medical history and medications so that when they visit the doctor they can thoroughly explain the issues they’re having with evidence to back up any concerning conditions or abnormal tests.
One problem in the doctor’s office is that women tend to have a different style of talking about medical symptoms than men do, and it doesn’t mesh well with the amount of time the average doctor gets to spend with patients.
While men often give a succinct list of symptoms, women are more likely to build a narrative around how they’re feeling, a challenge when the average doctor is usually rushed and has only about seven minutes with you.
Lesson for women: It’s smart to get to the point!
The more awareness women have about the biases held against them when they experience pain, the more empowered they’ll be to get second opinions, push for diagnostic testing, and insist on receiving pain medication when necessary. In short: They can take their health into their own hands.
A woman's health is her capital. – Harriet Beecher Stowe