When speaking of painkillers and gender we scratch the surface of what has become known as the gender pain gap. The term was coined after a landmark study on biases in pain treatment showing that women often experience dismissal of their medical concerns, leading to misdiagnosis, incorrect medicine dosages, delayed treatment and – to put it bluntly – unnecessary pain.
Painkillers are known for relieving sudden pain or aches, like a pulled tooth or headache after a night out. They are however less helpful for long-term pain conditions, like chronic illnesses. This is problematic since 70% of chronic illnesses are reported by people who identify as women. This, while 80% of pain studies are conducted on male mice or men. Women not only receive more diagnoses for chronic pain but also report longer-lasting, more recurrent and more severe pain.
To (literally) add insult to injury, the exclusion of female subjects from clinical trials until 1993, implies that most over-the-counter painkillers have never been tested on women, a common issue when looking at the role of gender in medicine.
Endometriosis is one of the chronic conditions experienced by people with uteruses, causing cramps and (extreme) pelvic pain. The average time for someone to be diagnosed with Endometriosis is about 7.5 years in the UK, despite it affecting as many as 1 in 10 people with a uterus. The pain of women has historically been dismissed as a part of “womanhood”. This is particularly the case for Black women and women of Colour.
Black women are less likely to be correctly diagnosed with Endometriosis, partly because their pain tends to be systematically ignored. A review of previously published studies on pain management found that Black patients were 40% less likely to receive medication for acute pain compared to white patients. At the intersection between gender and race, we find the “strong Black women” stereotype. This stereotype perpetuates the racial inequality within the gender pain gap.