Women & MS: Fighting For Believability
Last updated: February 2023
You’ve been incredibly fatigued, in a massive amount of pain, your limbs are numb, vision blurry, you’ve been slurring your speech, and your thoughts are all clouded. This has been happening for a while, so you finally go to see a doctor. Upon describing your long list of symptoms, they do a basic exam and then begin to explain what you are experiencing is normal.
The dismissal of pain
They tell you that nothing out of the ordinary is happening, they might even say it’s in your head. Not only do you leave with no answers, but you start to question yourself and what you’ve been experiencing. This kind of situation is awful and, sadly, is extremely common for women when they are searching for an MS or any chronic illness diagnosis.
Examples of gender bias
You may be thinking, what qualifications does someone like me, a middle-aged white male, have to be talking about the discrimination that women face when trying to get medical attention? Well, aside from knowing many women who have faced such problems (including many who have expressed it in the comments and forums on this very site), we have access to various peer-reviewed, independent studies that prove that there is indeed a gender bias when it comes to the treatment that women receive.
So even if we put aside all the personal stories (and there are many), we have data that demonstrates that these problems exist.
- One recent study showed that women were perceived to be in less pain than male counterparts who were experiencing the same amount.1 I highlight this because pain is a big issue for me. It’s also a symptom that relies on doctors to believe what the patient is saying, so to me, a disparity here is indicative of the overall attitudes that are out there with regards to believing women.
- One study reviewed patients with severe abdominal distress admitted to emergency rooms, it found that women, on average, had to wait 16 minutes longer than men to receive pain medication.2
- A UK study found that with regards to numerous types of cancers, it took longer for women to be diagnosed than men despite similar symptoms.3 I highlight this one because, for many cancers, you simply need a doctor to believe you enough to get the proper imaging done to see if there is a tumor. So in my opinion, that’s an exceptionally egregious finding.
The impact of gaslighting
You may be familiar with the term “gaslighting”; if not, it is defined as “to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity”. Gaslighting is one more issue that women (though some men as well) face when trying to get the proper medical care that they deserve.
With many doctors not being willing to believe their patients, they will often convince them that everything is “all in their head”. This kind of activity is exceptionally cruel, in that not only does it mess with a patient’s mental state, but it can also prevent them from seeking an additional opinion.
You have to fight
I may look at the reasons behind these issues at a later date, but for now, I want to point out that these issues exist and they are common. This isn’t a problem that women are only perceiving, it is an actual issue that has been quantified. This isn’t just in anyone’s head.
I also want to remind everyone to fight for their health, fight for their diagnosis and treatment. You know when something is wrong with your body and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. If you took your car to a mechanic because it was making noise but he said nothing was wrong but your car still made noise, wouldn’t you dismiss him and ask someone else? Doctors are like mechanics for the body, good ones can be really helpful, but not all of them are great.
People know their own bodies
Don’t be afraid to seek an additional option, and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts. Along with all of this, if you have someone in your life that says something is wrong with them, believe them, give them the benefit of the doubt. People know their own bodies.
Thanks so much for reading and always feel free to share! As always, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below! I’m sure some of you have experienced this and I would love to hear your story.
What does advocacy mean to you as someone living with multiple sclerosis? Please select all that apply: