medical sexism- why women are under treated for pain

Why men get better treatment for pain then women

It’s pretty clear that women are under treated for pain as compared to men. I’ve had my own experiences with this, being brushed off and told I was just depressed or that I was crazy, but more and more research is validating this fact.

  • One study indicated that women are more likely to be given sedatives for their pain, while men are more likely to be given pain medication.


  • Women are less likely than men to be admitted to intensive care units and to get certain procedures, once they arrive there; they are also more likely to die in the ICU.


  • In a 1999 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that white women (and black men) were 40 percent less likely to be referred for potentially life-saving cardiac surgery.


  • Women are three times less likely to get the hip or knee replacement they need.


  • The odds of a surgeon recommending knee replacement in the case of mild arthritis were 22 times higher for the male patient.


  • Women who complained of abdominal pain the the ER were significantly less likely to get any kind of pain medication and were 15% to 23% less likely than men to get opioids specifically.


  • Women in the ER had to wait longer the men before they got any pain medicine—65 minutes on average, compared with 49 for men.


  • A 2003 study of doctor’s pain management knowledge and attitudes published in found in The Journal of Painthat women were less likely than men to receive “optimal treatment” for post-surgical or cancer related pain.

So why are so many women continually being under treated for pain when it is a known fact? One reason is that researchers are just beginning to learn that men and women’s bodies respond to pain differently, a fact that many doctors either don’t know or like to ignore. Additionally, because women’s bodies respond differently women also seek treatment for pain more than men. This perpetuates the stereotype that women are weak and emotion and are over-reactors.

Furthermore, McCaffery and Ferrell using a questionnaire administered to more than 300 nurses, found that most respondents believed that women, compared to men, were less sensitive to pain, more tolerant of pain, less distressed as a result of pain, and more likely to report pain and express pain through nonverbal gestures.*

Regarding physician perceptions of female patients with pain, Hadjistavropoulos found that physicians distinguished between their “attractive” and “unattractive” patients. Attractive female patients were perceived as experiencing less pain than unattractive female patients, evidencing a “healthy is beautiful” stereotype.*

These studies aren’t exactly encouraging. As someone who is not beautiful when I’m in pain, it horrifies me that if I were more attractive I would be taken seriously. Under treated pain can lead to some serious side effects, not to mention the loss of quality of life, so why aren’t doctors taking this information more seriously? Why aren’t doctors listening to the women who come to them for treatment? There should be better answers.



*Hadjistavropoulos T, McMurty B, Craig KD. Beautiful faces in pain: Biases and accuracy in the perception of pain. Psychol Health. 1996;11(3):311-420
*Fishbain DA, Goldberg M, Meagher BR, et al. Male and female chronic pain patients categorized by DSM-III psychiatric diagnostic criteria. Pain. 1986;26(2):181-197.

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