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The great unsolved mystery of female pain

By October 17, 2020No Comments

Lynn Enright writes this issue about why women’s pain is taken consistently less seriously than men’s, and how women’s health issues in general are broadly under-examined…


Every month, I go to the pharmacy to collect the items I need to make it through my period. “Have you tried paracetamol?” the man behind the counter asked this month, when I requested a box of Solpadeine. He had an upright demeanour, this guy, and the kind of pore-less skin and puppyish enthusiasm that meant he couldn’t have been more than 30. I sighed, quite rudely, quite pointedly, and repeated my request. To be fair, the man was only doing his job: codeine is addictive and it’s up to the pharmacies to warn us about that. But paracetamol? Please.

When I have my period, I take mefenamic acid and tranexamic acid (both of which are prescribed by my GP), as well as codeine. I have recently started using tampons infused with CBD and while I can’t be sure that they work, it feels like they do, a little bit, at least. I make myself a hot water bottle and I shuffle around, subdued and exhausted, during the two days when the pain is at its worst.

I’ve tried everything, including paracetamol – but it appears that this is my lot. The doctors can’t be quite sure why my periods have become so heavy and painful in my thirties – but a uterine fibroid that’s progressed from the size of a seed to a cherry to a plum might have something to do with it. It’s a bit of a mystery, really, like so much of women’s health.

Our womanly bodies come with clocks and cycles – and unsolved mysteries. Of course, the mysteries could be solved. It would be expensive and time-consuming and there would have to be studies and trials, as well as fundamental shifts in the way we think about how our hormones and our DNA influence pain – but it’s not impossible. The pain that so many women suffer daily or monthly is not inevitable.

Pain should not be an unfortunate side effect of being a woman – but, currently, that’s pretty much the way it is. Whether you have a condition that is specially associated with the biology of cisgender women – like endometriosis, vulvodynia or painful and heavy periods – or a condition that affects all genders equally, we know that women’s pain is consistently taken less seriously than men’s. Women wait longer for treatment in A&E departments than men, according to studies and data from Europe and the US. And when women do see a doctor, they are more likely than men to receive prescriptions for sedatives – rather than pain medication.

As Dr Alyson J. McGregor notes in her 2020 book Sex Matters: How Male-Centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health And What We Can Do About It, “Women are underserved, understudied, under-diagnosed and under-treated in multiple areas of high public health significance – including cardiac disease, stroke, cancer, and pain disorders, as well as women-specific conditions.” The male body has been seen as the default for millennia, a situation that has allowed for women’s pain to be dismissed and misunderstood, sometimes fatally so.

To change that outlook will be a complicated and lengthy process and Dr McGregor believes that it can’t just involve experts, scientists and doctors. “The most powerful tools for change in this arena are awareness and advocacy,” she writes. Research funding tends to flow to areas that receive the most attention – a devastating reality that means research into a common condition like endometriosis has been woefully underfunded because it does not impact cis men.

We will have to talk about our pain, sometimes offering it up to be examined outside of the doctor’s surgery – presenting it in art and in conversation and on social media. It perhaps shouldn’t have to be this way, it would be better if we were able to assemble the clues of this great mystery of female pain without relying on women to display their wounds and their scars – but this is how it is, and thankfully it seems there is a new ability to discuss it on our own terms.

There have, it is true, always been women who have represented female pain in their work – Frida Kahlo comes to mind instantly – but over the last couple of years, there has been a boom in art and writing that portrays the truth of female pain and female bodies: the portrayal of endometriosis in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends; the glorious goriness of menstrual blood clots in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. For the necessary overhaul in medicine and research to take place, there must be an overhaul in the way we discuss women’s pain. The boom must continue.

When the young man in the pharmacy asked me for a second time if I had tried paracetamol, I answered him honestly. I gave him the whole story. Periods are normal but debilitatingly painful periods are abnormal – that’s the kind of thing that young man needs to hear and that’s the kind of thing we all need to get used to saying.

Lynn Enright is a journalist and the author of Vagina: A Re-Education. On 21 October, she will be presenting a lecture on women’s pain for Nave.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash