‘Our Pain Is Invisible But We’re Not’

By Kristen Mascia

Consider for a moment the womenin your life who regularly grit their teeth through pain. Your old college roommate who was knocked flat by migraines. The friend who cancels plans because of her nightmarish cramps from fibroids. The running buddy whose relentless backaches have sidelined her from your weekly jogs.

Women are taught that suffering (periods, childbirth, sore joints) is just part of the deal, the crappy door prize we’re born with by virtue of our two X chromosomes. In a way, it is. Chronic pain—the kind that drags on for months or years and throws a wrench into relationships, careers, workouts, and everything in between—affects women in greater numbers than it does men, and often more severely.56 percent of the 50 million sufferers in America are women..

Yet our medical system is woefully ill-equipped to handle what hurts us. Most of the research has been on men, so many doctors aren’t trained to adequately treat the pain-causing disorders that disproportionately touch women, says Maya Dusenbery, author of Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick. Beyond that, there is the entrenched myth that women’s discomfort is all in our heads, says Dusenbery. Yes, even in 2019.

Lump all this together and it’s no wonder that women wait longer in emergency rooms than men and are less likely to be given effective painkillers. For women of color—who contend with racial bias on top of sexism—relief is even tougher to come by. Compared with whites, people of color are more frequently not given a pain prescription, according to research.

Left under- or untreated, many women develop ache-amplifying conditions such as anxiety and depression, says Marianne Legato, MD, PhD, founder and director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University. It’s understandable: Being dismissed can make you feel down, so you might not sleep enough or eat well, which can intensify pain.

Attempting to break this vicious cycle is a grassroots crusade of women raising their voices.

Hashtags like #PainWarriors and #SpoonieLife (“spoons” are the finite units of energy that people with chronic illnesses must budget throughout the day) are blowing up on social media.

Women’s Health spoke to six women who are saying “no more” to the stigma and stereotypes. They’re taking command of their care and finding what works for them, on their terms—a lesson for us all.

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