Do doctors take women’s pain less seriously? 108

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A shocking story about a woman suffering excruciating pain while doctors dismissively diagnosed her caught our attention this week.

A journalist wrote this incredible piece for US media The Atlantic about the treatment his wife received in an emergency department after presenting with acute abdominal pain.

Her complaint was initially dismissed as kidney stones and it was only hours later a doctor correctly diagnosed her with ovarian torsion and recognised that she was in a life-threatening condition and an extreme amount of pain.

But that only came hours after she arrived at the emergency department. The writer recalls how he wanted to tear down the walls to have his wife’s pain acknowledged, but no one was listening.

He writes: “‘You’re just feeling a little pain, honey,’ one of them told Rachel, all but patting her head.”

It turns out that this woman wasn’t the only one to have the reality of her pain minimised. Research shows that men wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving pain medication for acute abdominal pain, while women wait an average of 65 minutes for the same thing.

A US study called The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain found women were “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the health-care system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients’.”

The researchers note that this is not entirely the fault of the medical establishment but also the women themselves, who in many cases don’t want to appear melodramatic by complaining.

Are women tougher? And are we, as a result, expected to put up with more pain than one should bear?


Let’s talk: Have you ever had to wait longer than you should for pain relief? Has someone you love? And do you think women are actually better at managing pain or is it just another role we play? 

Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. All patients should be treated equally and unless proven otherwise treated with compassion and action to relieve the symptoms.

  2. I agree that the older generation of women were expected to not cause too much fuss, especially from other older women and mothers!

  3. Yes. I had deep vein thrombosis during and after my third pregnancy. My leg was tightly bandaged all the time. A nurse rebrand aged it after a shift change in the evening and while she was doing it I remarked it felt a lot tighter than before. I awoke just before midnight with awful pain and trying to be stoic waited far too long before ringing the bell. The same nurse came and I said it was too tight and very painful. Try to go back too sleep I was told. It was one of the worst nights of my life and by morning I was a mess. 7 am the new staff came on and a sister looked under the blankets. My toes were a deep purple , almost black. It became quite an incident as it could have had serious consequences. It was November 1972

  4. It was a while before I could convince the doctor that my abdominal pain was more than IBS, which is what he originally diagnosed. Turned out I had (his words) “the worst pain the body can endure”. Within three days I was vomiting poo, and three days later after six hours of surgery, I survived.
    I wonder if the diagnosis would have been faster for a man……

    5 REPLY
    • Oh it was in 2001, all good now. Thanks….but I do remember that the day before surgery I learnt that death can be your friend, the pain was so bad.

    • I had been told by a doctor that I had IBS and grumbling appendix for almost 40 years….turns out, when I finally found a doctor who cared (a woman) I had Crohn’s disease! Us women are stronger than men when it comes to pain

    • Been there and done that too Dee and its no fun! Especially if you other half thinks the same and leaves you at the hospital while he toddles off to work – he is an X now!

    • Wow Ruth, that could be me! I had a birthday party organised for the weekend after I was taken into hospital, (my birthday!), and he went ahead with it! Worse still, as the hospital was around the corner, I was on drips, in agony still, something draining stuff through my nose, pethedine, morphine so in a complete drug induced haze, and the party goers took it in turns to visit me!
      He’s well and truly my ex now.

  5. I had severe pain after having had a multiple birth miscarriage and surgery to remove my fallopian tube, I was accused of looking for attention and it was decided I needed acupuncture for pain relief. I was seriously annoyed but said I would do it to prove it was real. Whilsr the acupuncturist was placing the needles into my abdominal area I suddenly doubled over in pain screaming as it was very painful. The doctor notified my specialist who organized surgery for the very next morning…my bowel had adhered to my Uterus. ….yes just looking for attention

  6. My husband’s first wife was taken to emergency with excruciating head pain and was offered Panadol for migraine and sent home. She died the next morning from a brain bleed. It is frightening that we can’t trust those who are in charge of looking after us!

  7. For the past 6 weeks I have been complaining of severe knee pain after walking into a coffee table just 41/2 months after having knee replacement surgery, I was told that it is nerve pain yet the pain continues, yesterday my doctor decided to send me for an X-ray and ultrasound today to see why I’m in so much pain, but I had to insist that he do something about it now.

    5 REPLY
    • Same here Trish. Haven’t had knee replacement but had a number of heavy falls and after moving house and on my feet for a month my knee swell up to double its size with a huge lump on the back. After visiting the doc she told me I had a baker cyst and nothing could be done and it will fix itself. After hobbling around for 3 weeks in a lot of pain and taking bucket fills of pain killers an MRI was done! Hallo! She said you really have hurt yourself havnt you! I have torn ligaments off the bone and cracked my patella and worn away the surface of the joint. Now on the list waiting for specialist. Makes you wonder if I were male would it have taken so long?

    • Lyn I was told today that it looks like a baker cyst however I thought the Orthopedic Surgeon was suppose to have taken care of that back in May when I had the surgery, so I’m not happy.

  8. I think women handle sickness better, but men are tougher with physical injuries. With emotional stress, I believe both genders are equally vulnerable, although men are more likely to try and hide it, seeing it as a weakness. A woman will more confide in a close friend or family member, where men will bottle up feelings of despair. In the end, we can all be wousses, and we can all be tough. Just depends.

    1 REPLY
  9. My experience at my local hospital was great. Admitted almost immediately and was given pain relief and antibiotics through a drip. After ct scan I was rushed into surgery to have appendix removed. This all happened within a couple of hours.

  10. Hahaha! I’d like to see how a man reacts after 10 hrs of labour then passing a watermelon down their orifice which is the size of a pencil!

    1 REPLY
    • Lynn, this reminds me of sn incident many years ago. An intern made a disparaging remark about a woman in labour. The Midwife said to him. “Have you ever tried to pass a teapot?”

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