‘They called me attention seeking’: Doctors are still ignoring women’s pain
'This doesn't happen to my husband when he goes to the doctor.'
‘We ended up taking around 30 trips to A&E in two months, but I was repeatedly told there was nothing medically wrong with me and that I was seeking attention – that it was most likely because I was stressed about my GCSEs,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
Chloe’s intense period pain began at eight years old, and at first she thought this was ‘normal’. By 15, the pain was daily and unbearable.
‘When I initially sought help, I was either told I had a UTI, or that I was looking for attention – and yet I was bleeding so much at that point that I’d routinely pass out and throw up,’ she says.
New research from Nurofen found one in three women feel their long diagnosis time was due to their healthcare professional not taking their pain seriously or dismissing it.
The Gender Pain Gap – in which pain experienced by men is statistically diagnosed and treated by healthcare professionals faster than women – has widened from 7% to 11%, according to this new study.
This resonates with Chloe, who continues: ‘Four specialists told me there was nothing wrong, and nothing they could do to help: “It’s just part of being a woman. Everybody goes through this”. No, they don’t.
‘Eventually, my mum became fairly confident it was endometriosis and refused to take me away from the hospital unless I got some actual help. She demanded I see a specialist in the hospital that same day.
‘It was only at that point, after seven years of pain, that I was diagnosed with stage two endometriosis – on both sides of my pelvis and my womb. It was everywhere.’ Two weeks later, she had emergency surgery.
Nurofen found less than half of women surveyed received a diagnosis for their pain within 11 months compared to two thirds of men. This has both physical and mental repercussions.
‘You feel isolated when you can’t socialise for so long, and you end up living in your own mind. I believed that I was going insane,’ Chloe says.
‘I didn’t really cope. I spent most days in bed instead of going out having a normal teenage experience.
‘Doctors would either give me no pain relief, or strong opioids such as morphine to take at home, this would leave me in a zombie like state.
‘I think if I’d have been told “your pain’s real, you have endometriosis” much earlier on, it would have saved my mental health as well as a lot of scar tissue and pain from the endometriosis spreading. I would be living a better life now.’
Understandably, Chloe feels ‘distrust’ in doctors, so much so that she chose a home birth at 18 when she gave birth to her child.
‘I had a successful unmediated home birth in my mum’s kitchen, the pain was nowhere near as painful as endometriosis,’ she adds.
Dr Marieke Bigg, sociologist and author of This Won’t Hurt: How Medicine Fails Women says: ‘Healthcare professionals continually misattribute women’s symptoms to stress or “hormones”, while men are more likely to be sent for a physical check – even when complaining of the same type of pain.
‘Over time, this has led to women’s pain being overlooked, resulting in a gender pain gap.’
The report found 20% of women want resources to support conversations between women and healthcare professionals, so Nurofen is launching ‘Pain Pass’ today, which is a free PDF designed to help people track and articulate their pain and symptoms.
Hilary Withers, 60, from Knebworth, would have appreciated this years ago, after an 18-month battle to be taken seriously – which resulted in needing surgery.
‘My back pain probably started back in the eighties or the nineties when I was a hairdresser, on my feet all day,’ she says.
‘By about 5pm it was horrendous and all I could do was lie on the sofa. It would start in my lower back and then go into sciatica where I couldn’t move at all.
‘For years, I just accepted it as a bad back. Then one day I realised I couldn’t live with it anymore and went for help. I was told it was just wear and tear. I was probably in my late 40s at the time, so I didn’t feel like I’d done that much for it to be wear and tear, but that’s what I was told.’
Hilary tried acupuncture, swimming, stretching, got a new bed, and took ‘copious amounts of over-the-counter painkillers’ – none of which worked. Hilary saw few more doctors, and all of them downplayed the pain.
‘One prescribed me antidepressants on the basis that they decided I was menopausal because of my age,’ she says.
‘It was probably a three-minute doctor’s appointment, and I didn’t feel listened to at all. In fact it made me feel like a bit of an idiot.
‘Instead of getting better, the pain kept getting worse. It was only after about 18 months of chronic pain that I was finally referred to a consultant.
‘I remember practically crawling into his office, crying. After running all of the necessary scans, they discovered it was a disk that was leaking debris onto the sciatic nerve. It was so bad that I was booked in for surgery the following day.
‘I woke up after the surgery not in pain. That’s how much difference getting treated made.’
Finally getting her diagnosis and subsequent surgery made her realise just how ‘let down’ she’d been.
‘I think I had automatically been seen as a woman in her fifties who could be fobbed off. This doesn’t happen to my husband when he goes to the doctor,’ she adds.
‘At times I definitely felt that doctors just saw me as a pain in the backside or I was being a bit dramatic.
‘I feel all that pain for so long was so unnecessary, I hobbled around for years not running around with my kids. I missed out on quite a lot because sometimes I couldn’t move.’
On a couple of occasions, Hilary couldn’t join in on family ski holidays, due to being in so much pain and even bending down to put boots on was insufferable.
Dr Bill Laughey, senior medical scientist at Reckitt says: ‘Too often we’re seeing women not being taken seriously because of long-established, unfounded gender stereotypes where men are brave and don’t complain, while women are “more emotional” or more likely to exaggerate their pain for attention.’
Research suggests that pain in women is more likely to be given a psychological label, he adds, and that can spell the end of an investigation into what’s wrong with a patient.
‘These gender stereotypes can fuel the gender pain gap. But women need to know that their pain will be given the right level of gravitas, regardless of their gender.’
You can download Nurofen’s Pain Pass here.
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