The study, by medical professionals and researchers, regarding the differences between how men and women are treated for pain appears to date back to the early 1980's. The perception of women as inherently overly-emotional or reactive reaches back millennia. The word hysteria is actually derived from the Greek word 'hystera', meaning uterus. One may draw from this a parallel: women have long been stereotyped as being hysterical simply because they have a uterus. Notably, this seems to be the case in the world of medicine, especially as concerns any ailment, injury, or chronic illness that presents with symptoms of pain in women.

A history of debilitating pain

It has been one year nearly since I began experiencing debilitating lower-back and leg pain. In a period of 7.5 months, I saw one general practitioner, three orthopedic surgical specialists, a pain management specialist/anesthesiologist, and one emergency physician. I was told repeatedly that while my MRI scans and x-rays showed moderate degenerative disc disease, four bulging or herniated discs in my lumbar spine, and osteoarthritis in my spinal column, and while it was reasonable that I would have some pain, that the symptoms I was describing and the pain levels I was claiming to have experienced were not justifiable. I was told time and time again that I simply couldn't be experiencing things like loss of feeling in my entire left leg, chronic sciatica so severe and debilitating that I could not stand, lay, or sit, without pain reaching a 10 on a 1-10 pain scale, chronically.

In those nine months, I lost my job, my dignity, and at times my will to live. Finally, nearly eight months into the journey, I saw a neurologist who referred me, immediately, to a pain intervention specialist. It is worth noting that all of the Doctors that I'd seen, up to this point, were men, whereas the neurologist was a woman, though the bias against women experiencing pain does not seem limited to only male doctors, not so much that it is supported by any significant data.

After working with my pain interventionist for two months we had a new diagnosis, accompanying the previous diagnoses of degenerative disc disease, arthritis, and herniated discs. I was diagnosed with a relatively uncommon neuro-muscular disorder called piriformis syndrome.

The piriformis muscle is located in one's buttocks, near the hip joint, and is important because it helps to stabilize that joint when one walks.

One's sciatic nerve passes under or through the piriformis muscle making it so that if one is experiencing piriformis syndrome (spasms in the muscle) they will likely experience chronic and intense sciatica as the muscle is essentially choking the nerve. This condition is hard to diagnose because it is not something that will show up on scans, such as MRIs, CT scans, or x-rays. There is no definitive medical test to indicate piriformis syndrome. Additionally, because it isn't very common, many doctors simply aren't looking for it.

Women in pain are maltreated

Considering my own frustration and negative experiences with doctors and specialists, I became curious about how women, in general, are treated when it comes to symptoms and complaints of pain especially as compared to men.

What I discovered is that legal and anecdotal research repeatedly demonstrates that women are overwhelmingly treated with less urgency, less compassion, and even receive less medication than men when complaining of pain. For instance, one study of emergency departments in the United States showed that men waited for an average of 49 minutes for analgesic pain medication when experiencing abdominal pain, where women waited for an average of 65 minutes for the same thing.

A legal study conducted by Diane E. Hoffman and Anita J. Tarzian, "The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain," found that women have a higher prevalence of Chronic Pain syndromes and diseases associated with pain than men and that women are more sensitive to pain than men, but that statistically women's reports of pain are taken less seriously and are treated less aggressively than men.

Further, the study found that women are more likely to have their pain discounted by medical professionals as 'emotional,' or 'psychogenic', and therefore, 'not real.'

Why does this happen? According to Hoffman and Tarzian, part of the problem is that pain is subjective and that every patient will experience pain differently. This means that the treatment of pain depends on physicians viewing the patient as a credible reporter of their own pain. Conversely, the practice of Western Medicine largely dictates that physicians rely on objective evidence of disease and injury, such as blood labs and medical imaging. This can put the patient at odds or in conflict with the physician(s) who are charged with their care and treatment, an uncomfortable situation at best and dangerous and a potentially deadly situation at worst.

Further, Hoffman and Tarzian referenced a "beautiful is healthy" stereotype that causes medical providers to assume that patients who are more physically attractive are in less pain.

Medical gaslighting

In 2017, Buzzfeed shared the stories of 29 women who felt that their doctors had not taken their pain seriously. A woman named Rachel shared about a time when she'd had severe abdominal cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and a fever for days. The first physician she saw (a male) diagnosed her illness as severe menstrual cramps and provided her with Advil for the pain. The female attending who saw her immediately after sent her to the hospital, and she was ultimately diagnosed with an E. Coli infection.

Another woman related a story of when she was 17 and had a skiing accident in which she'd injured her knee. Upon reporting her pain level to doctor at the walk-in clinic she was told that "couldn't have been that serious" and that she'd just bruised her knee. In reality, she'd torn her ACL, MCL, and meniscus and needed major surgery which she didn't receive for months. The complications caused by the delay in repair have meant she's had to give up skiing, as well as jogging/running. The 7th woman featured in the Buzzfeed piece shared an experience she'd had when she was 15, after having knee surgery. She had a staph infection in her knee, but her doctor told her mother that the pain and fever were, 'just because she's blonde and 15.'

If gaslighting is manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity, medical gaslighting is manipulating a patient into thinking that they are exaggerating their own condition, causing a patient more and prolonged pain, putting their well-being or even their lives at risk. Both anecdotal and legal studies suggest that the mistreatment and neglect of female patients reporting pain to medical professionals is not the exception, but the rule. It has got to stop.