Period Pain & Perception: When a Woman's Pain is Ignored
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
Something that's been making headlines more often in recent months is the topic of women and how their pain is perceived. It's no secret that women's pain is routinely downgraded or dismissed by both male and female health care professionals, despite the fact that women wait longer to report pain. So where did this belief that women exaggerate their pain come from? Well, whatever way you look at it, it all comes back to the pain that's unique to women: period pain.
The concept of women over-playing their pain may have its roots in the 19th century, when ideas about female “hysterics” and “nervous conditions” were running rampant in England and the US. At that time, it was believed that women, due to their very nature, were fragile beings, easily upset by small changes, too much excitement, or an improper diet. Menstrual pain, though acknowledged and often treated with opiates, wasn't spoken of. If a women became upset, it probably wasn't from any legitimate cause; it was just because she was a delicate woman with women's problems. No big deal
This unfortunate cultural development is certainly one of the reasons women's pain has been ignored for so many years, only attracting real attention within the past few decades. But does it explain why we still feel that women are more prone to exaggerate their symptoms? It's easy for men and women to attribute a women's pain to “female problems,” and ignore it. Even if they're sympathetic, the woman in question just needs to “toughen up” and deal with it, because all women experience that.
However, recurring period pain bring up another aspect of this question. Since women deal with pain on a regular, recurring basis, are they more likely to exaggerate or downplay their own pain? There's been some debate (though unfortunately no clinical studies) about whether or not women tend to have higher pain thresholds than men.
One popular, though untested, belief is that continued exposure to pain builds up a sort of pain immunity, making the sufferer less and less sensitive. However, we know that chronic pain (not menstrual pain) can actually increase sensitivity in sufferers, and that more women than men experience chronic pain. So when it comes to the question of period pain building up a tolerance or creating hypersensitivity, the jury is still out.
Then there's the problem of what a woman's pain ought to be, according to culture. Leslie Jamison, in her Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, examines Western literature through the centuries, coming to the conclusion that women who suffer meekly are the ideal. Consumption (now known as tuberculosis) was once thought to be caused by pining or other forms of sadness, and very often romanticized in literary females. Pain makes women docile, needing protection.
But the key is that these ideal women are martyrs. They don't complain about their pain; they bear it bravely, if feebly. And they never talk about about their periods. Today, women are taking control of their health, menstrual and otherwise, and forcing doctors to listen to them. They're boldly seeking treatment for pain, arguing that menstruation shouldn't be a taboo topic, and demanding that their pain be taken seriously. And that doesn't yet fit with our cultural idea of how women and pain should interact.
It's clear that we've got a long way to go culturally when it comes to our perceptions of women, period pain, and its reception.
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