Why Is It So Easy To Disbelieve (And Gaslight) A Woman In Pain?

Posted: September 26, 2019

Women experience pain differently, for different reasons, and also with very different symptoms, so they are regularly disbelieved, expected to endure, and gaslighted.

#InternationalPainAwarenessMonth

September is celebrated globally as Pain Awareness Month since 2001. It is a global month long campaign, now taken up by various organisations to raise awareness through mass media, public forums, and all other platforms to have chronic pain recognized, understood in the light of ignorance and traditional stigma. In addition there are collaborations and joining voices for chronic pain advocacy and pain management.

Women’s pain not taken seriously; leads to most women hiding it

I have often written and spoken about chronic pain, my personal mental health and fibromyalgia struggles, and how the healthcare and support system in India fails its women more even when it comes to mental health and suicide prevention.

So many women in India are living a similar life, but without even proper diagnosis, or even awareness that they need healthcare intervention. Gender difference in the experience and expression of pain has been recorded by various studies.

That woman who is always fatigued? May be chronic pain

Sometimes these struggles start manifesting as physical symptoms like hypertension and constant fatigue. Sometimes, women in chronic pain with no hope and support begin to suffer mentally too. It becomes a cycle of pain for most like it did for me with fibromyalgia and depression.

Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain than men since women are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. Women also are at a larger risk to have anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be sources of chronic pain in the long term.

Chronic pain affects a higher proportion of women than men around the world. Ironically women are less likely to receive any treatment. 

Research indicates that women generally experience more recurrent pain, more severe pain, and longer lasting pain than men.

“Invisible pain”

In addition women have women-specific chronic invisible pain conditions like endometriosis, vulvodynia and vaginismus which are a huge taboo in our society because these are linked with menstruation, reproduction and sex.

The Endometriosis Society of India suggests that 25 million Indian women suffer from this condition. Fibromyalgia also is believed to occur more commonly in women of childbearing age, though it can affect any age group.

Chronic low back pain, anaemia, cataracts, mental health, neurological disorders and hearing loss — conditions that are not fatal, but lead to significant disability go hugely unreported, undiagnosed, and hence unnoticed especially among women.

Sexual health also remains a huge grey area. Indian women still lack awareness and agency about reproductive rights and even basic utilities like easy contraception. Unsafe sex, unsafe abortions, unmonitored pregnancy and/or delivery also leads to health issues that persist and often go unnoticed.

Why women?

Biological reasons

Researchers have definitely concluded that humans in pain tend to produce less oestrogen. This biological fact might affect a ‘biologically’ woman more than a male counterpart and severely.

Social reasons

Chronic pain affects women disproportionately in the following manner:

  • often higher health care costs due to dependents mostly children sometimes elderly
  • loss of capacity to work optimally, and hence economic hardship
  • diminished quality of life for women and their families as already restricted mobility is further restricted sometimes
  • lack of access to resources and care as and when needed as they are not high priority in conventional families

Similarly gender identities also play a huge role in how pain is not just experienced but also expressed. For example, in India “tolerance” and “endurance” are two qualities glorified in women traditionally and they are expected to bear the pain silently and be deemed great. However they can cry and remain weak but won’t expect to be taken care of like men are.

A gap in effective pain management among genders

Medicine and healthcare systems often don’t allow for this difference in how pain is perceived and experienced in women and men. Experts say this leaves critical gaps in the effective management of chronic conditions afflicting women.

The healthcare industry with the assumption that pain can be measured, has come up with various pain scales and the like. However most women do not identify their pain with just a number that a doctor or healthcare provider points to on a chart, especially because the woman’s previous and diverse experiences with pain in such a misogynist society are not taken into account.

Multiple psychosocial and biological factors, combined with several economic and policy-related hurdles in India leave millions of women living in pain without proper treatment or support.

Let’s change this.

Image source: pexels

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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.

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