Period pain now ruled as bad as a heart attack. Why did it take so long?

I can’t even count the number of stories I have of women who shared how they writhed in agony and discomfort due to menstrual cramps—that… excruciating pain we can’t even begin to describe to men. Or, if we try, more often than not feel dismissed or judged as “weak”; even exaggerated or maarte. This is why a lot of women tend to suffer in silence and end up doing everything they can to just tolerate the pain.

Well, now we have just the words for it: Heart attack. Last month, menstrual cramps or dysmenorrhea was officially ruled as a medical condition that feels similar to having a heart attack. According to John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, research shows period pain can be as bad as the life threatening medical emergency. He said, “Men don’t get it and it hasn’t been given the centrality it should have. I do believe it’s something that should be taken care of, like anything else in medicine.”

We agree a hundred percent. But the fact that this ruling has only been established now is disappointing. Women have always had to deal with menstrual cramps, yet it has never been given a serious medical consideration. According to Independent, this may primarily be because “menstruation is presented as ‘Woman’s Troubles,’ and framed as a natural pain innate to women; almost a holy, mystical suffering like childbirth.” Additionally, “women are seen as exaggerating pain and being ‘dramatic’ due to sexist stereotypes, while men are listened to and believed when they express the same pain and symptoms.” This leads to serious consequences. According to Harvard Health Publishing, it’s been found that in the US, women wait “an average of 65 minutes before receiving an analgesic for acute abdominal pain in the ER,” meanwhile men wait only 49 minutes for the same symptoms.

But that’s just scratching the surface of it. Women’s menstrual pain isn’t the only health condition downplayed by the medical community.  According to the New York Times, “Research shows that both doctors and nurses prescribe less pain medication to women than men after surgery, even though women report more frequent and severe pain levels.” A study by the University of Pennsylvania also reveals that women wait 16 minutes longer than men to receive pain medication when they visited an emergency room. Harvard Health Publishing further wrote, “women in pain are much more likely than men to receive prescriptions for sedatives, rather than pain medication, for their ailments.”

And speaking of heart attack, a 2000 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine actually found that women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack. Harvard Health Publishing claims that this may be due to the fact that “the medical concepts of most diseases are based on understandings of male physiology, and women have altogether different symptoms than men when having a heart attack.” Apparently, 80 percent of pain studies are conducted on male mice or human men, even though “70 percent of the people it impacts are women.” It’s especially upsetting when a study focusing on “gender differences in the experience of pain found that women tend to feel it more of the time and more intensely than men.”

So in summary, we can see that even in medicine, male physiology and their conditions are put first—a  harrowing evidence of how women are treated as second class citizens. Apart from misdiagnosis, as mentioned above, their conditions are dismissed because “women are more likely to be told their pain is ‘psychosomatic,’ or influenced by emotional distress.”

To add to this overwhelming data, NYT highlights that even physicians themselves corroborate these findings. “I can’t tell you how many women I’ve seen who have gone to see numerous doctors, only to be told their issues were stress-related or all in their heads,” says Dr. Fiona Gupta, a neurologist and director of wellness and health in the department of neurosurgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Many of these patients were later diagnosed with serious neurological problems, like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. They knew something was wrong, but had been discounted and instructed not to trust their own intuition.”

With how society has failed us, can you really blame some women’s disillusionment and distrust over powers that be? So do us a favor. The next time a woman voices her distress over a health issue, or even complains about her period pain, please don’t give her sh*t. The least you can do is believe her.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

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Bea del Rio: