A Pained Life: Perception and Reality for Women in Pain

A Pained Life: Perception and Reality for Women in Pain

The results from National Pain Report’s “Women in Pain” survey are out. To see them, click here.

As an advocate for women in pain, I was not surprised by some of the results, but others did surprise me.

sensitive to painFor instance, the response was overwhelmingly “No” (65%) to the question: “In general, do you think women are more sensitive to pain than men?”

The scientific data is clear. Women do have lower pain thresholds than men because of estrogen. Testosterone gives men higher pain tolerance abilities.

We have all been fed the stereotype: Women can go through labor and give birth. The fact that they can go through that is proof of their ability to tolerate severe pain. If these results are indicative of the population at large, women continue to accept this myth as true.

I read this a lot in online support groups. A woman will tell how she did the laundry, cooked, took care of the kids, and now her pain is off the charts. She then goes on to say, “But I am a woman. I cannot let my pain stop me from doing what I am expected to do.”

Is this her expectation for herself or is it emblematic of the picture of women as super-strong superheroes?

When it comes to chronic pain being linked to childhood trauma, only 23% said they had no physical or emotional trauma as a child. Interestingly, close to the same number — 17% — have said a doctor has told them, “Your pain was caused by a childhood trauma.”

This is what appears to be another false narrative; that chronic pain is the result of childhood trauma. No definitive studies have borne this out, but it is an easy way out for doctors who may not have the answers. It puts the burden back on the patient.

Do that reply and others such as “I don’t know what’s wrong with you” come from a place of gender bias or do men hear those same replies as often as women?  I do not know of studies that address this issue; however research has repeatedly shown that men’s complaints of pain are taken more seriously than when women make the same complaints.

Women seem to feel this bias when 62% say “Yes” to the question, “Do you feel doctors take your pain less seriously because you are a woman?”

Women also feel discriminated against by the healthcare system. Only 9% of respondents say the healthcare system does not discriminate against them.

The survey results are interesting and disturbing. Women say they are discriminated against and feel this discrimination. How much of it is perception? How much is true gender bias?

It would be interesting to see how doctors would answer similar questions. Is there a disconnect between how women feel they are being treated vs. how doctors feel they are treating them?

Regardless, one thing is certain. Women do not feel listened to or taken seriously by the medical and health community. And that needs to change.

Carol LevyCarol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.”  Carol was accredited to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, where she helped get chronic pain recognized as a disease.

Carol is the founder of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness”. Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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Authored by: Carol Levy, Columnist

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Johnna Stahl

“It would be interesting to see how doctors would answer similar questions. Is there a disconnect between how women feel they are being treated vs. how doctors feel they are treating them?”

I had a doctor once who was a misogynist — would that doctor answer questions like this truthfully? Or would his answers have uncovered his misogyny? Somehow, I doubt it.


As a teacher with many years of experience with young students from around the world I must say that boys are as sensitive as girls. I have seen it year after year. The competitive boys are the ones who hide their pain the most and you can see that lots of times they try hard not to cry.

It is incredible, but you still hear dads say, “Boys don’t cry!”. It is not only a matter of our body compositions (oestrogen vs testosterone), but of many other factors (e.g. cultural, familiar).


You have hit on a thought provoking point here, Carol. How would doctors answer the same survey? Would they be honest with themselves? Would the survey questions and/ or results (providing they are honest) change the way they think? How many doctors would bother to do the survey? So many questions keep popping up in my mind, and frankly all the answers disgust me!

Dr. April Fiorentino-Reed

I am not seeing, nor have I seen, any actual reports from sufferers of fibromyalgia who’ve said that they ~want~ to take narcotics. However, when the FDA-approved medications do not reduce or eliminate the pain, have many side effects, or when there are flares of pain that these drugs do not touch, many of us have no choice but to turn to narcotics for pain relief. We would much rather not take any medications, especially narcotics, but that is not an option, as we cannot function with chronic pain without medication or some relief. With the new FDA regulation to move hydrocodone products to class II, this is going to cause more problems for people who genuinely need these medications for pain relief.

I do not think that the research on the use of opiates in conditions such as fibromyalgia are long enough, or take into account the chemical changes that chronic pain causes in the CNS.

Of course, this argument could become moot by approving medical marijuana for use in fibromyalgia and similar invisible chronic pain conditions in all 50 states.