Believing Women’s Chronic Pain

Edited by Olivia Spahn-Vieira  

One in five Canadians struggle with chronic pain, and the majority are women. Female chronic pain has long stayed in the dark, never to be addressed and often undermined. Medical diagnoses have a history of repression, as women have been constantly told that their pain is not real, and is unworthy of medical attention or care. The interminable agony of chronic illness, both physical and societal, has created a continuum of shame for women who must speak up in order to receive the care they need.

A common form of chronic pain in Canada is reproductive related illness; the most widespread being extreme menstrual pain. Growing up, many of us have been told to hide our pain and endure it in silence, only to be properly diagnosed later, after years of denial and ridicule by medical professionals. According to US data, approximately 20% of women suffer from excruciating periods. Many of these cases are caused by illnesses such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (or PCOS for short), and uterine fibroids. Other illnesses can also be triggered by childbirth; studies show that nearly one in four women experience pelvic pain after childbirth leading to years of post-partum pain.

Canada is far behind in recognizing chronic pain as a hindrance to women’s well-being, particularly in the work-place. There is a scarcity of additional sick days available for women struggling with various forms of pain, including period cramps. Countries like Japan have created menstrual leave policies whereby any woman is lawfully allowed to take time off. South Korea has followed suit and has also provided women with a single day off a month for the same reasons. Other countries following a similar model include Indonesia and Zambia. While period-related pain does not cover the entire spectrum of pain-related illnesses that women may face, they are the most common symptoms. These symptoms have been reported to lead to 100 million hours lost for American women in the workplace. In the UK, workers have taken as many as 17 million days off on an annual basis due to period-related pain. For most women whose livelihoods depends on their occupation, missing the work day may not be an option, and there is a great amount of fear in speaking up about it due to shame and stigma.

 Other common chronic pain illnesses include Fibromayalgia, a disorder caused by musculoskeletal pain. In last year’s October issue of Vogue, Lady Gaga opened up about her own challenges with the illness famously stating that “chronic illness is no joke”. She discussed the devastating impact of chronic pain not being believed: “ I get so irritated with people who don’t believe fibromyalgia is real,” the actress and singer said. “For me, and I think for many others, it’s really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder, all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result.” The agonizing nerve pain has reportedly led to her hospitalization in 2017, as well as the cancellation of multiple tour dates.

 In her documentary Five Foot Two, the singer and actress provides audiences with an in-depth look into the world of chronic illness, to raise awareness for the illness and open up more dialogue on the misconceptions associated with such illnesses. Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Rheumatology at McGill University pointed to the fact that the medical condition wasn’t perceived as a “real illness” until very recently. In the Canadian context, 2018 reports from the Arthritis Society has demonstrated that fibromyalgia affects two percent of Canadians, but nearly 80-90% of sufferers are women. By negating this gender gap in our health sector, we are diminishing the voices of women that simply want to live another day without gut-wrenching pain. The numbers speak for themselves, chronic pain can no longer take a back seat to other health issues. It must be politicized, and discussed openly.

For many women in Canada, chronic pain has grown to be a part of their daily burdens. With pain being perceived as false or exaggerative, women have been treated as second-class citizens in our health system at the cost of our well-being and job security. Moving towards fighting for women struggling with chronic pain starts one important notion: believing women’s pain as real and valid.