It is common knowledge today that the difference between women and men go far beyond just the general construction and function of our reproductive organs. But did you know that disparities between the sexes can be different even in relation to how we experience pain? In a recent article, “Women may experience more pain than men, but receive less treatment for it,” Dr Padma Gulur, MD, goes into detail on how women in pain are less effectively treated and cared for in the medical community compared to their male counterparts. She then goes on to offer some practical advice for how this came to be and ways to overcome some of these challenges.

Women in pain: Why aren’t they treated the same?

Dr. Gulur points to various studies to show the discrepancies between treatments for men and women that are currently present in the U.S. health care system. One such study shows that women were found to be 25% less likely to receive opioid-based pain medications and had to wait longer compared to men to get any medication. Women make up a large portion of the over 115 million people in the U.S. who suffer from chronic pain, yet many feel disenfranchised to the point where 90% of female patients felt that the health care system discriminated against them.

Dr. Gulur also refers to the fact that women in pain are usually assumed to be suffering from some kind of emotional stress rather than an actual physical ailment. This can be seen in many different studies including those that show that women after surgeries are more likely to receive sedatives rather than painkillers in relation to men.

Part of this is due to the fact that multiple new research studies show that men and women process pain in different ways. It has been shown that female rats, which have very similar nervous systems to humans, use a different immune cell to signal the pain response in the brain. According to Michael Salter, MD, Ph.D:

“Understanding the pathways of pain and sex differences is absolutely essential as we design the next generation of more sophisticated, targeted pain medications.”

While there is some overlap, there is more activity in the cognitive or analytical regions of the brain for men and more activity in the limbic regions or emotional centers for women. Both genders were shown to activate their particular centers in the brain in anticipation to pain as well as the pain itself. Dr. Bruce Naliboff, UCLA clinical professor of psychiatry and bio behavioral sciences, revealed that while the gender responses are different, neither are better and are likely to compliment each other when responding to an external threat.

Women in pain: Understanding gender biases

Gender bias beliefs create an environment where treatments for women in pain are less potent in nature. It also leads to doctors dismissing the concerns of their female patients. In another study, it was shown that doctors were more likely to ignore a woman’s heart attack symptoms and attribute the chest pain to anxiety. When neither men nor women had chest pain present, it was shown that men were more likely to quickly receive care associated with a heart attack than women were. This was in spite of the fact that women under 55 are twice as likely to die from heart attacks as men are.

Furthermore, this bias greatly affects the development of new medications and the general research that is being conducted in the medical community. One literature review of major medical journals indicated that in research only about 17% of animals used were female. Additionally, only 14% of studies that evaluated diseases that mostly affected women used female cells in the process.

Self-advocacy for women in pain

Dr. Gulur’s article talks about how, culturally, women tend to wait longer to seek help for pain and prefer to remain silent on the issue. One of the major struggles for all patients is that they relinquish their power to physicians, as they believe the knowledge is so specialized that they need to fully trust medical experts. Dr. Gulur suggests that women do not need to live in pain and she pushes others to take proactive steps in researching the many options in pain management.

Practicing self-advocacy can be a difficult task. To make it a little easier, here are a few tips and tricks that all medical consumers should know to be better at advocating for their own needs.

Always be proactive about your health 

This means making sure you are taking care of yourself with a proper diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep. If you have a medical condition, it is your responsibility, no one else’s, to educate yourself on it as much as you can. This means knowing symptoms, treatments, and support services. Your doctor is there to be a valuable resource, not to control your life.

Make your doctor a partner 

You have a limited amount of time with your doctor so make sure you always prep before an appointment. This includes compiling questions, new symptoms, and any test results you might need to share. Always know what medications you are on and why, so you can explain with ease.

Develop communication skills

Practicing good communication can make all the difference in your care. Be honest with your doctor, even if you fear shame or guilt. It helps no one to lie about your life choices or symptoms.

Don’t be a passive patient 

Make sure you know how your insurance works and keep up-to-date on health care legislation. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions either. At the end of the day, a doctor is still working for you. You need to protect yourself and make sure your health is being taken care of. If you feel dismissed or unheard, you should try seeking a second opinion to make sure you are being taken care of properly.

Did you find this information helpful? Do you know women in pain who have experienced similar problems and roadblocks while trying to seek medical assistance?

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