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Why Is Female Pain Ignored?

Julia Buckley’s new book charts her battle to solve her chronic pain – and asks if women are being dismissed because of their gender...

Have you ever left a GP’s surgery with a feeling in your gut (not linked to your ailment) that you’ve been dismissed – knowing you’re going to have to go back again just to be taken seriously?

You’re not alone and, more importantly, you’re not imagining it. This month, a study* found women are three times more likely to die following a heart attack than men. Not for any physical reason – but because doctors fail to prescribe women the same treatment as for men. There’s even a term for it: Yentl syndrome, a phenomenon that male doctors are twice as likely to ascribe female pain to psychological causes, and half as likely to prescribe adequate pain relief. In the US, women have to see, on average, 12 doctors before their pain is medicated effectively.

The idea that women get substandard medical care wasn’t news to me. I spent four years in chronic pain – two immersed in a medical system that wasn’t listening to me. I’d had an accident at work and had an underlying genetic condition whereby a connective tissue disorder caused pain all over my body, spiking with nerve pain in my right arm, which kept me off work. But male doctors suggested antidepressants. One told me, ‘If you only stopped worrying, you’d be absolutely fine.’ Tell that to my faulty DNA.

When Robyn Vinter, 28, from Leeds, went to doctors about what was eventually discovered to be endometriosis, she was dismissed by a male gynaecologist who told her to ‘go away and come back if it gets worse’. She says, ‘I’ve since learned that you can get prescription painkillers, but I assumed there was nothing they could do. It makes me angry to think of myself trying to get on with things without making a fuss because I thought someone else’s evaluation of my situation was more valuable than my own.’

Jane**, a PR executive, was 31 when her voice started cracking. A doctor told her to, ‘get some sleep, rest my voice and not let my job stress me out’. Nine months later, a female speech therapist pushed for a consultant referral and she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a chronic neurological condition. I’m sure you and your friends could list stories where you’ve been similarly overlooked.

During research for my book, Heal Me, about my quest for a cure, I realised this dismissive treatment of women is not just to be expected, but also accepted. I can’t help but draw parallels with the Time’s Up movement and the regressive attitudes about women’s bodies. By drawing attention to this issue, I hope doctors’ surgeries will be another place women can feel empowered to speak up, be heard and improve their lives.

Check out the women fighting gender injustice of every kind on Instagram...