Let’s talk about pain

They think it’s in our heads and if it’s in our heads, they can dismiss us

Have you ever experienced pain during a procedure involving your uterus? I passed out once during a biopsy.

I remember the doctor warning me that it might be “slightly uncomfortable.”

And then passing out.

And then my (male) doctor telling me I had a “highly-developed vasovagal response,” which means not, “I pass out when I feel pain” but “I pass out easily.”

Turns out I am not the only one who finds “slightly uncomfortable” to be closer to “really painful.” Read Caroline Criado Perez’s brilliant newsletter about this issue.

… for many women, IUD insertion isn’t, as the NHS website says simply “uncomfortable,” and no, 400mg of ibuprofen isn’t cutting it. Several women who wrote to me compared it UNFAVOURABLY with the pain they experienced GIVING BIRTH WITHOUT PAIN RELIEF.

Starting when I was a teenager, I would get sinus headaches. I lived on aspirin and sudafed.

I was at my friend Heather’s one day and got a headache. No aspirin in my purse, so I asked Heather if she had any.

No. She had no aspirin. None.

“What do you do when you get a headache?” I asked her.

“I don’t get headaches,” she said.

That was the first time I had ever heard someone say that.

I thought getting headaches was normal.

I thought getting headaches all the time was normal.

Turns out it is not.

Even so, it still did not occur to me until years later to mention my headaches to a doctor. Who goes to a doctor for a headache?

And, possibly, I had internalized the idea that women’s pain does not matter – that we are to endure it. After all, nobody had ever really solved my menstrual cramps problem. One of the few outcomes from getting medication for cramps was that my insurance company, while I was in grad school and had to get individual health insurance, refused to cover me for any problems of the reproductive system.

And UTIs – again, who goes to the doc for that? And when we do, we’re told – well, we’re told to pee after sex and drink a lot of water.

(Turns out that’s BS as well: Read Jen Gunter‘s book, The Vagina Bible.)

Why is our pain ignored? (And the pain of Black women is discounted even more than the pain of white women.)

Because nobody – wait, NOBODY WITH POWER – believes it’s real.

Or, if they think it’s real, they don’t care.

Faherty and Grier studied the administration of pain medication after abdominal surgery and found that, controlling for patient weight, physicians prescribed less pain medication for women aged 55 and older than for men in the same age group…

Calderone found that male patients undergoing a coronary artery bypass graft received narcotics more often than female patients, although the female patients received sedative agents more often, suggesting that female patients were more often perceived as anxious rather than in pain.

Another study, comparing post-operative pain in children, found that significantly more codeine was given to boys than girls and that girls were more likely to be given acetaminophen.

The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain, Diane E. Hoffmann, Associate Dean & Professor, U. of Maryland School of Law, Anita J. Tarzian, Professor, U. of Maryland Baltimore County

But why?

Because they think we are making it up. Because they think it’s all in our heads. Because how can they study women’s bodies? Our hormones make it so hard!

perceivers judged female patients as relatively more likely to benefit from psychotherapy, whereas male patients were judged to benefit more from pain medicine.


Women weren’t included in clinical trials until the 1990s. While we make up 70% of chronic pain patients, 80% of pain medication has been tested only on men. Even in preclinical trials with cell lines and rodents, males have been favoured over females. Researchers have justified this bias by claiming that oestrous cycles in female rodents – and menstrual cycles in human women – would potentially corrupt results. If that were so, wouldn’t it be quite important to find out before selling the drug to women?


And let’s not forget the main reason: it’s more important to spend research money on erectile dysfunction, which, may I remind you again, DOES NOT CAUSE PAIN AND DOES NOT INHIBIT EVERYDAY LIFE, than it is to study and resolve women’s problems.

Five times as many clinical trials have been conducted on the topic of male sexual pleasure, such as for erectile dysfunction, as on female sexual pain….Pubmed, which publishes medical research studies and found 446 studies of dyspareunia, vaginismus, and vulvodynia, all highly painful conditions affecting women’s ability to have sex. Studies of erectile dysfunction? 1,954. As one doctor she quotes explains, women will silently provide sex “with their teeth tightly clenched.”

Rage Becomes Her, Soroya Chemaly

2 thoughts on “Let’s talk about pain

  1. Excellent post – no surprise there! Am so sorry you’ve had so many years of and types of pain, altho I know several other women with similar stories. While I have been more fortunate in that respect, I have found that female doctors tend to be a lot better than most male doctors who I have had. Certainly there were good men, and one spectacularly awful woman, but for the most part … I have found that female practitioners listen better, ask more direct – on point – questions, and generally take me more seriously. These days I pretty much seek out women professionals in every area I can. If nothing else, I want to support other women, but mostly they seem to give better “service” no matter what the field.


  2. I’m currently going through fertility treatment, and I’ve had at least two procedures that were unbearably painful that studies show could be made substantially less painful with topical lidocaine application, which has essentially zero medically negative indications. It’s unfathomable to me that lidocaine isn’t the standard protocol but it’s not.


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