Your Pain is Your Fault: What Women Are Told by Their Doctors

Doctor physician.  Isolated over white background.

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Your only problem is that you’re fat and lazy.”

“You’re too pretty to be sick!”

“You brought this on yourself. Your pain is your fault.”

These are some of the surprising, disturbing and bizarre things that women were told by their doctors, according to an online survey of over 2,400 women in chronic pain conducted by National Pain Report and For Grace, a non-profit devoted to better care and wellness for women in pain.

The survey found that most of the women believe the healthcare system discriminates against female patients and that many women feel there is a gender bias in the way their pain is treated by physicians.

One question that drew a big response from women – and over 700 written comments – dealt with what they were told by their doctors. Three out of four women said they were told at least once by a doctor that they’d have to learn to live with their pain. Over half said a doctor had told them they didn’t know what was wrong with them.

Has a doctor ever said the following to you? (Check all that apply)

  • 75% “You’ll have to learn to live with your pain.”
  • 57% “I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
  • 51% “You look good, so you must be feeling better.”
  • 45% “The pain is all in your head.”
  • 18% “Your pain was caused by a childhood trauma.”

In their written comments, many women indicated their doctors were often frustrated by their inability to diagnose and treat their pain.

  • “There’s nothing more I can do for you.”
  • “Your symptoms don’t make sense or have any relation to your condition.”
  • “Even an autopsy couldn’t give you an answer.”
  • “I’ve never heard of this condition before!”
  • “What’s going on with you is over my head.”
  • “Your disease isn’t profitable enough for me to treat.”
  • “Why do you keep coming here? I can’t help you.”
  • “You know there’s no cure for the illness you think you have, so why bother seeing a specialist to get a diagnosis?”

Other women said they were belittled or even mocked by doctors – who often dismissed their pain as imaginary or a ruse to get narcotic painkillers.

  • “If I prescribe you pain medicine you will just turn into a drug addict.”
  • “You need to see a psychiatrist. I have patients in much worse pain than you who aren’t taking opioid medications.”
  • “Are you sure you’re not just looking for drugs?”
  • “Chronic pain shouldn’t be treated with pain medication.”
  • “I don’t want to hear anything more about fibromyalgia. It’s not real.”
  • “Your only problem is that you’re fat and lazy.”
  • “At your age and weight, you’re just going to have pain. That’s all there is to it.”
  • “You are crazy, nothing is wrong with you.”
  • “You’re in pain because you don’t believe in God.”

Then there were the unconventional suggestions – some of them bizarre – that doctors had for women to relieve their pain.

  • “You need to see a psychologist, go through withdrawals and then start back on the meds. Drink wine to help you sleep.”
  • “I’m a big advocate for suffering! So, to be honest, you should suffer.”
  • “You will feel better if you just go backpack around Europe.”
  • “I can’t think of anything else to give you. Next we’ll have to try a prayer book!”
  • “I don’t know about this so you’ll have to look it up on the internet.”
  • “You can use thoughts to change your gene expression and cure yourself.”
  • “You are crying this entire visit so you must be better.”
  • “You have a broken spirit, try going to church.”
  • “You are so young, so you would not qualify for disability. Go find some work and hopefully you will get hurt more (and) then qualify.”
  • “If you get pregnant or have a hysterectomy, you’ll feel better.”

Some women feel their doctors focus too often on their appearance – using that to judge the degree of pain they were in.

  • “You are too pretty to have so many problems.”
  • “You look better in-person than on paper.”
  • “You look great, but tell me how you feel!”
  • “You can’t be too sick because you have make-up on and you are not in your sweat pants.”
  • “My former psychiatrist used (to) note how well my hair was styled when I came to see him, and correlate it with mood. I didn’t realize this until I requested records.”

Several women learned coping strategies to deal with this. Some started bringing their husbands and boyfriends to their doctor’s appointments. Others would purposely not “dress up” when they saw a doctor in order to be taken more seriously.

“I discovered that I needed to play a weird balance game with my appearance — I enjoy dressing nicely and wearing makeup, but if I went in to a doctor’s office dressed for work, they assumed I wasn’t in pain,” wrote one woman. “If I went in wearing comfortable loungewear and no makeup, they assumed I was depressed. I had to figure out a ‘just right’ solution where I would be treated respectfully and not dismissed.”

“When I have an appointment with a doctor and I am not knowledgeable about his or her of attitude towards chronic pain, I make it a point not to look good for the appointment,” wrote another woman.

Not all of the comments about physicians were negative. Several women said they were very happy with their current doctor, but finding the right one was often a case of trial and error.

  • “Seven different male doctors told me my pain was ‘all in my head’ and gave me no treatment. I did finally find a great doctor, male.”
  • “I have had doctors in the past treat me deplorably. However, my current doctors are caring and respectful.”
  • “Most of my doctors have treated me well. I go to someone else if they do not.”
  • “I have a female doctor now who treats me with care and compassion.”
  • “Doctors practicing complementary or alternative medicine are more likely to take my pain seriously. I have also found an excellent pain specialist who knows and believes me.”
  • “I finally found a wonderful woman doctor who hears what I say and treats me as a person. I don’t want to go through this without her.”

You can see the full results of the “Women in Pain” survey by clicking here.