A common theme in many of the scientific conferences I’ve recently attended is that chronic pain, when left untreated, can actually cause permanent changes to the brain and nervous system. That knowledge makes it all the more important for physicians to address pain soon after a patient’s struggles begin. In my practice I treat a majority of female patients who are dealing with severe jaw and facial pain. From their stories, I know first-hand that gender bias in chronic pain treatment is real.
There seems to be a common attitude among many health care providers that women who complain about pain are exaggerating their suffering. According to references in the book “A Nation in Pain” by Judy Foreman, studies have shown that doctors are more likely to request tests for male patients who complain of pain. Men’s symptoms are often treated as physical and neurological conditions while similar symptoms in women are considered due to psychological or psychosocial issues. In addition, there is evidence that physicians frequently dismiss women who report chronic pain or write them off as experiencing emotional hysteria, unlike their male counterparts.
This evidence, combined with the well-known biologic factors that predispose women to jaw and facial pain, makes it easy for me to understand why women with longstanding pain problems ultimately seek care in my office. The problems I see are broad in nature and typically caused by disorders of muscle, joint, or nerve tissue. My patients’ stories about misdiagnosis and/or delays in proper pain therapy (as a result of the attitude that the pain is all in her head) are certainly unnerving.
In addition, many of my female headache patients have been told to “tough it out” or take anti-anxiety medications for pain problems. These treatment recommendations again put the emphasis on blaming the patient as opposed to identifying a potential biological cause and directing treatment at specific pain receptors and pathways.
Clearly these kind of gender-biased misconceptions need to be addressed if women are to get the timely pain care they deserve, especially before changes occur in the brain and along nerve pathways. As a result of research in the often-maligned diagnoses of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia, these disorders have been redefined (Chronic Regional Pain and Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disorder) revealing that biases can be changed. As scientific investigations are today beginning to shed light on gender-specific pain problems, hopefully the same kind of change in attitude will prevail.
For the time being women suffering from chronic pain will have to seek help where they can find it. Many chronic pain support groups have sprung up (I often share their posts often on my Facebook page) which can help these patients feel less alone.
My office will continue to assess the physical and cognitive emotional components of all pain complaints that pass through our door, regardless of gender. With a female patient population approaching 82%, I know that not only do these patients have real problems I know that most of them can be helped.
Have you experienced gender bias in your quest for treatment for chronic pain? Please share:
Dr. Donald Tanenbaum is a specialist with offices in New York City and Long Island, NY. He is uniquely qualified to diagnose and treat problems associated with facial pain, TMJ, headaches and sleep apnea.