Have you ever felt that a healthcare professional was dismissing your symptoms or concerns about your menstrual health? Maybe you’ve been told that it’s all in your head or that it’s just a normal part of being a woman or having a period.   

It can be frustrating and disheartening when a provider doesn't take your symptoms seriously or tries to downplay them. This is a form of medical gaslighting, where a healthcare provider assumes your diagnosis and gaslights you to go along with their chosen treatment. They may ignore your details, discredit your story, or won’t take your symptoms seriously. Whether it is intentional or not, this can lead to misdiagnosis.  

Who is most affected by medical gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting is more likely to happen to women and people of colour.  

In a campaign called ‘Real Women, Real Pain’, The International Association for the Study of Pain showed that women experience more chronic pain conditions than men, yet their pain is often treated less seriously and not believed. One study found that when women and men both presented symptoms of heart disease, women were twiceas likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition. In another study, 45% of females said they didn’t think their healthcare providers took their symptoms seriously.  

This major health inequality contributes to what’s known as the gender pain gap. It stems from the false assumption that women are more emotional than men and that their pain is therefore exaggerated or even imagined. This bias becomes apparent when it comes to pain management, where women experiencing pain are more likely to be prescribed sedatives rather than pain killers. Sedatives are commonly used to treat anxiety, irritability, and panic disorders, suggesting that women’s pain is first perceived as anxiety rather than being taken seriously, resulting in delayed and inadequate treatment.  

A significant reason for the gap is also the lack of education and research studying the differences between how men and women experience pain. It’s important to note your provider may not be doing this intentionally. Often, the pressure to see as many patients as possible and the understaffing in hospitals can lead to rushed appointments and inadequate support. This systemic issue within the healthcare system puts both patients and providers in challenging situations.  

Medical gaslighting is worse for people of colour

The long history of racial injustice in medicine, along with the underrepresentation of ethnic groups in clinical trials, has led to racial bias in diagnosis and treatment, particularly when it comes to pain conditions. Stereotypes about how non-white people experience pain have created significant disparities in the quality care they receive. A 2016 studyfound that more than half of medical trainees believed incorrect statements about Black individuals i.e., Black skin is thicker than Whiteskin, Black people feel pain less than White people.  

Medical gaslighting of endometriosis

In general, menstruation is still seen as a social and cultural taboo; almost 45% of women feel difficulty discussing their intimate and reproductive health. Unfortunately, for those with endometriosis, medical gaslighting only adds to the barriers they face in getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. 

You may feel discouraged from speaking about your symptoms, lose trust in your healthcare system, and avoid returning for treatment. This could potentially delay your diagnosis. In one survey by Endometriosis UK, up to 75% of women stated they would not approach a doctor for painful period symptoms. Some felt that period pain was considered 'normal' (23%), while others worried that their doctors wouldn't take their pain seriously (25%). 

In a research study on women with endometriosis, many of them reported feeling confused, ashamed, doubtful, and helpless. Shared experiences included difficulties in obtaining a diagnosis, experiencing multiple misdiagnoses and re-diagnoses, feeling as if they were not receiving sufficient help, and being forced to self-manage their symptoms. 

The way in which you're treated in emergency department is like you are just drug seeking.

Patient 1

I think this is just more of the generalized socialization of women, that it's all in our heads…. there's a lot of misogyny within the way that women's pain is assessed and interpreted.

Patient 2

Many women hesitate to seek advice from a healthcare professional out of fear their problems won't be taken seriously. In our next article, we go into detail how you can spot medical gaslighting and ways to approach it.

Next article: How to advocate against medical gaslighting

Written by: Medically Reviewed


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