Are Women Treated Differently From Men When It Comes To Pain Management?

In 2018, a British professor of reproductive health finally confirmed what women have known for centuries: Menstrual pain can be as excruciating as a heart attack. But when a woman mentions premenstrual cramping to her doctor, she's likely to get brushed off or told to take a couple of ibuprofen. Speaking of heart attacks, women suffering from chest pain are less likely than men to get prompt treatment in the ER, per the Journal of the American Heart Association.  The "first, do no harm" oath seems to be lost on the medical community when it comes to pain management for women.

Even when doctors do address women's pain, they tend to offer the bare minimum of relief. In March 2023, TikTok user @gvillegas01 posted a video showing her husband lying on a doctor's table, an IV drip in his arm. "Being by my husband's side while he has a stomach ache caused by 'possible appendicitis,' and seeing the nurse give him morphine for pain," she captioned. "[B]ut thinking about how after my c-section and my colposcopy I was given only Tylenol and ibuprofen." The TikTok drew more than 700,000 likes, plus plenty of outraged female followers responding with their own stories of being dismissed or given over-the-counter meds for ovarian cysts, blood clots, appendicitis, abscesses, and more. One respondent said, "I was told after my c-section that most women over-exaggerate their pain and that studies were done where Tylenol was all that was needed." 

So, what's behind this bias in women's pain treatment, and what can you do about it?

Women are still perceived as exaggerating their pain

A couple of factors are at play in the issue of pain management bias. First, research into gender and pain shows that women and men perceive pain differently. When given the same form of uncomfortable stimuli — from electrical jolts to extreme heat — men consistently show a higher pain threshold than women do. Yet doctors may prescribe the same dosage of pain relievers for both, or even a lower dosage for the woman. Psychologist Carolyn Mazure told NPR that women are given opioids for pain more often than men are, which can lead to addiction or dangerous drug combinations. Researchers hope for a future in which pain remedies will become gender-specific.

Women have also historically been perceived as being more emotional and prone to exaggeration — the very word "hysteria" comes from the Greek for "uterus," and was once used to describe women who displayed any symptom that a doctor couldn't treat easily. Even today, women's pain is too often dismissed as being exaggerated or "all in your head," as the woman who responded to the TikTok post can attest. Some conditions that are common to women, such as fibromyalgia, are still looked on by doctors as being not entirely legit. Men, on the other hand, are conditioned to "push past the pain" and avoid showing vulnerability.  So physicians may assume that something must be seriously wrong if a male patient comes to them with a complaint of headache or stomach cramps. 

Don't let anyone tell you that your pain is all in your head

How can you make sure you're getting the best treatment possible for your pain? First, know your personal pain threshold, keep track of your symptoms, and be your own best advocate. Keep a journal of your medication and dosage history, noting what works for you and what doesn't. If you know you want a different type or dosage of medication than your doctor recommends, speak up. For instance, being sedated for an IUD insertion can make the difference between an easy procedure and an agonizing one. 

Being specific with your language helps. Medical experts told NPR that using the traditional 0-to-10 pain scale doesn't adequately tell a doctor what you're suffering. Describe what you're feeling and how it's affecting you on a daily basis. Is the pain stabbing, throbbing, or burning? Is it located in one spot or radiating to other areas? How does it compare to other pains you've had? Is the pain interfering with your work, social life, or other activities?

You may also want to consider switching doctors if you don't think your current one takes your pain seriously. If your doctor is male, you might think about finding a female M.D. One study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that in hypothetical situations, woman doctors were more likely to prescribe higher doses of analgesics to female patients than to male ones. Whatever you do, don't suffer in silence.