The Gender Pain Gap: Why It’s Time to Take Women’s Health More Seriously

  The healthcare system is grappling with a significant issue known as the gender pain gap, where pain in women is inadequately understood and treated compared to pain in men. Systemic gaps and biases contribute to this problem, resulting in dire consequences for women.

Recent findings from a report commissioned by Nurofen reveal a concerning trend – the gender pain gap is widening. In 2023, 11 percent more women than men report feeling that their pain has been ignored or dismissed, compared to 7 percent in 2022. This highlights a critical issue in healthcare that needs urgent attention to address the disparities in pain management and treatment experienced by women.

The report, based on a survey of over 5,000 individuals with a nearly equal split between men and women, exposes disparities in the time it takes for women to receive medical diagnoses for various types of pain compared to men in the UK.

The findings indicate that women experience longer delays in obtaining a diagnosis for their pain. Less than half (47 percent) of women surveyed received a diagnosis within 11 months, whereas two-thirds (66 percent) of men achieved a diagnosis within the same timeframe.

Furthermore, a higher percentage of women (14 percent vs. 9 percent) remained undiagnosed for 12 months or longer. Notably, a third of women perceived the delay in diagnosis to be a result of not being listened to, taken seriously by healthcare professionals, or, in some cases, completely dismissed. These findings underscore the urgent need for addressing gender disparities in pain diagnosis and ensuring that women's experiences are acknowledged and taken seriously in healthcare settings.

In a recent survey conducted as part of the Government's call for evidence in 2021 for the Women's Health Strategy, involving over 110,000 women, striking results emerged. A significant 50 percent of the women surveyed expressed feeling that their pain was either ignored or dismissed. This underscores a pervasive issue in women's healthcare, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive and attentive approach to addressing pain concerns in women.

Many women face dismissal of their pain, often accompanied by the assertion that certain symptoms should be accepted as inherent to being a woman and, therefore, not warranting treatment. This trend is particularly evident in the context of menstrual health.

Dr. Marieke Bigg, a sociologist and author of "This Won’t Hurt: How Medicine Fails Women," highlights the persistent issue where healthcare professionals attribute women's symptoms to stress or 'hormones,' while men with similar pain complaints are more likely to be referred for a physical examination. This discrepancy has contributed to the emergence of a gender pain gap, where women experience delays in receiving diagnoses for their pain, and feel disempowered to advocate for the necessary support. Dr. Bigg emphasizes the unacceptability of this trend, calling for a more equitable and attentive approach to women's healthcare.

Why female pain is often dismissed

Frequently, women are told that their pain is "normal for a woman." However, the critical issue lies in the fact that labeling it as "normal" leads the woman to believe that experiencing such pain is acceptable and that there is nothing inherently wrong. This, in turn, can foster the belief that there is no remedy or opportunity for improvement. Addressing this misconception is essential in empowering women to seek appropriate care, challenge assumptions about pain being inherent, and advocate for interventions that can enhance their well-being.

In reality, when healthcare professionals use the term "normal" in the context of women's pain, they often mean one or more of the following: 'this pain is common,' 'we expect this to happen,' or 'we know this does happen, and you are not alone.' Unfortunately, the communication breakdown occurs, and 'normal' becomes the default term, omitting the nuances that would provide a more accurate understanding.

This defaulting to 'normal' can have damaging effects on a patient's confidence and sense of empowerment, leading to a breakdown in advocacy that extends to subsequent consultations.

Despite women living longer than men, a larger proportion of their lives is spent in ill health, resulting in lower healthy life expectancy. The gender pain gap likely plays a role in this disparity, particularly since more women than men experience chronic conditions. Recognizing and addressing the complexities of women's pain experiences is crucial for improving healthcare outcomes and enhancing the overall well-being of women.

The problem with medical research

The gender pain gap is undoubtedly complex and multifactorial, and its existence is not surprising, given that it was only in 1993 that the FDA finally allowed women to participate in clinical trials. Prior to this pivotal moment, medical observation and intervention at a clinical standard were not carried out in females, leading to a substantial gap in knowledge and understanding of healthcare in women.

This knowledge gap extends to understanding what is considered expected versus pathological and identifying symptoms caused by diseases, whether gynecological or not. The historical practice of treating "male as default" in medicine, research, and clinical trials has resulted in less knowledge about pain conditions that predominantly affect women and a limited understanding of how conditions may impact men and women differently.

Compounding the issue, women's health research funding, both in the past and present, is disproportionately low, considering that approximately 50 percent of the population is female. Moreover, research findings are rarely disaggregated by sex, missing the opportunity to significantly enhance knowledge across various scientific and healthcare fields concerning women.

The gender pain gap goes beyond studies and statistics; it profoundly affects women's lives. Chloe, a participant in the Gender Pain Gap report, experienced debilitating period pain leading to daily struggles. Seeking medical help, she was misdiagnosed as having a urinary tract infection or dismissed as merely seeking attention, highlighting the real and impactful consequences of the gender pain gap on women's healthcare experiences.

Chloe's experience is unfortunately common for many in similar situations, where they feel alone, dismissed, and begin to question their own well-being. In Chloe's case, it took seven years to receive a diagnosis of Stage 2 endometriosis affecting her womb and pelvis.

Women across the board continue to struggle to have their pain taken seriously and receive appropriate treatment in a healthcare system that often underserves and overlooks them. This perpetuates health inequality as women may accept more pain, avoid seeking advice, or delay treatment. The consequences of this go beyond the impact on quality of life; they extend to financial, emotional, and work-related consequences.

This situation is both unfair and unnecessary, and it is imperative that such dismissals and disparities in women's healthcare come to an end. It is crucial to create a healthcare environment that recognizes and addresses women's pain with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.