Endometriosis and the Dangers of Period Pain Dismissal

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Scarlett Sullivan

Just a blue girl living in a red state.

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“It’s just cramps” — or maybe it’s something more. Every year, hundreds of people go undiagnosed with endometriosis. Due to lack of comprehensive knowledge on the subject, it can take 10 years to get an accurate diagnosis. Both the general public and the medical community will often dismiss the symptoms and waive these people away.

Endometriosis is a chronic disorder in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus. Symptoms include painful periods, painful urination and bowel movements, pain during intercourse, excessive bleeding, and infertility. Endometriosis can be caused by retrograde menstruation, embryonic cell growth, surgical scar implantation, endometrial cells transport, or an immune system disorder. It is very common: about 3 million cases each year are diagnosed in the US alone; however, most people are not diagnosed due to dismissal of their pain from friends and doctors alike.

Pain dismissal is not uncommon; according to a 2014 National Pain Report survey, 90% of people with chronic pain reported feeling that the healthcare system discriminates against them. Menstruating women* are sometimes seen as more dramatic and irrational, which makes doctors question how much pain a woman is “actually” in. The New York Times reported that one of the reasons endometriosis goes undiagnosed in young girls is that many doctors deny the specific female nature of the pain and just describe some anti-anxiety medication, as was the case with Senie Byrne. Byrne began her period at 15 and knew that something was wrong. She saw 22 doctors in 6 years, none of whom took her seriously. One doctor even prescribed her Prozac, telling her the pain was all in her head. This approach to woman-specific pain is nothing new. The medical community has a long history of attributing women’s behavior to mental health disorders, creating the very stereotype of the crazy woman that is hindering millions of women from getting proper medical treatment.

The Girl Who Cried Pain, a study by Diane E. Hoffmann and Anita J. Tarzian examines how gender bias plays into pain management. The study found that women were “more likely to be treated less aggressively than their male counterparts until they ‘prove that they are as sick as their male counterparts’” also known as the phenomenon of Yenti Syndrome. The Girl Who Cried Pain also found that medical professionals are more likely to tell women that their problems are psychosomatic, that it’s all in their head. In a clinical investigation done by the Department of Emergency Medicine, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania 1,000 people visited an ER. Although both men and women reported similar pain scores, women were 13-25% less likely to receive opioid pain medicine. Women also had to wait longer to receive pain medication.

Calling Endometriosis “just cramps” or “no big deal” is a dangerous game to play. Not only does it invalidate and dismiss people’s pain, but forces them to suffer in silence. Menstruating individuals get cramps, but not everyone feels the pain attached to having endometriosis. This disease impacts every aspect of a sufferer’s lives and hinders their ability to function. Painful periods that hinder someone’s ability to carry on a normal life are not normal and should be consulted about with a doctor. It’s time to stop silencing women’s pain and get them treatment they not only need, but also deserve.


*This article is intended to be as gender neutral as possible in recognition that cisgender women are not the only individuals who have periods. However, the term “women” is used when discussing the unique tendency for female and feminine people’s pain to be disregarded by others.