Physical fitness has never been my strong suit. I was never into team sports, absolutely hated P.E. class, and can count the number of times I’ve entered a gym as an adult on one hand. But when I moved to Colorado, one of the “fittest” states in the country, I decided I’d finally develop a love of working out here. It seemed every person I met spent their weekends adventuring—no one seemed to have any physical limitations. I longed to finally become the 14er-conquering, marathon-running woman I was now seeing on every corner, but it felt impossible—I was only 32 but even climbing the stairs to my apartment sent pain shooting through my body.
The previous year, I’d taken a nasty spill on the concrete that left me with a fractured vertebrae. Some days the pain was minimal, but others I could barely walk without feeling sharp pain. Still, the beautiful rocky mountains and plentiful yoga studios beckoned. I took small hikes, usually with the aid of ibuprofen. I went to yoga class, and quickly learned that lying flat on my back was more likely to make me yelp in pain than find a peaceful stillness. I stared at moms at the park chasing after their kids with ease and felt resentment every time I gently said to my son, “mommy’s back hurts.”
I wondered if maybe I was just being too much of a cry baby—if some fundamental weakness in me left me unable to deal with pain that everyone else was just muscling through. If other people could spend their weekends hiking and snowboarding, why couldn’t I?
With the help of a new doctor, I finally got a diagnosis for the debilitating pain in my back and hips: Sacroiliitis, an inflammation of the joints where your lower spine and pelvis connect. It’s a figurative and literal pain in the ass (as well as in the lower back, and sometimes also down the legs), and unfortunately has no cure. Sitting can be excruciating, climbing stairs (or mountains, for that matter) an exercise in torture. The pain isn’t going away.
Chronic pain in women
I spent a couple of years bouncing between doctors trying to figure out the cause of my chronic pain. Compared to many women, that’s quick. Elizabeth Fernandez, communications director of Movement Voter Project, has been dealing with pain for most of her life. As a child, she began experiencing numerous joint dislocations and at 19 was finally diagnosed with Ehler Danlos Syndrome—a group of disorders that cause connective tissue like skin and joints to become overly flexible, fragile, or stretchy. At 36, she was also diagnosed with osteoarthritis. “Most have been pretty dismissive of my pain,” she says.
It’s a problem that has been documented and reported on time and time again: women’s pain is not taken nearly as seriously as men’s. Studies have shown that there are indeed gender biases when it comes to how chronic pain patients are treated—women are often given less pain medication, and are more likely to receive antidepressants and referrals to seek mental health treatment rather than an investigation of the root cause of their pain. “It’s dehumanizing,” says Fernandez.
When women’s chronic pain goes unheard and undiagnosed, it creates a vicious cycle, says Carl Paige, M.D., owner of the Medical Transformation Center in Louisville, Kentucky. “Untreated chronic pain significantly lowers quality of life across all aspects,” he says, which can cause impaired sleep, and in turn lead to altered hormone function. Additionally, chronic pain sufferers who lack treatment may experience everything from depression and other mood disorders, to weight gain, orthopedic problems, and gastrointestinal dysfunction.
My pain is not a character flaw.
There’s a further disparity in the way chronic pain in women of color—and especially Black women—is treated. A 2016 study found that roughly half of medical students harbor false beliefs about biological differences between Black people and white people (such as “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s skin”), and that those who endorsed those beliefs were more likely to rate Black people’s pain as lower.
“Women in particular tend to be more quickly labeled as ‘difficult’ or having other psychosomatic issues, and often are not given a full proper pain evaluation,” says Leia Rispoli, M.D., a pain management specialist and associate physician at Remedy Pain Solutions. It’s especially bad among women diagnosed with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, she says, who doctors may “sometimes subconsciously assume to be embellishing or fixating on pain symptoms.”
Meanwhile women are often being told to “not complain too much” or “tough things out,” Dr. Rispoli says. Among Black women and other women of color, that stigma is even stronger—a multi-layered issue that spans beyond healthcare, and is partly a result of the Superwoman schema that Black women face compounded by statistically being ignored more often.
Taking women’s pain seriously
In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve learned a lot more about various chronic pain conditions, including my own. I’ve met countless folks online, especially on Twitter, who openly talk about their physical issues and how it makes them feel. I began to find some solidarity in the experiences—and more importantly, finally started to cut myself some slack. My pain is not a character flaw, it does not make me any less of a fully capable human than my mountain climbing Colorado neighbors.
Treating chronic pain starts with talking about it with a provider who will listen. Those who have never known constant, consistent pain that comes with the realization that it will likely accompany you forever, don’t always know how to respond to people like me with empathy. “I’ve noticed that women typically feel more comfortable discussing pain symptoms and being vulnerable with female healthcare providers,” says Dr. Rispoli, “which in chronic pain, there are very few of us.”
Some women turn to holistic practices. Hilda Gonzalez, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine and holistic healthcare provider at Saffron and Sage in San Diego, California, says women often come to her when they feel they’ve been failed by other providers. “Holistic practitioners are also usually focused on the root cause of what is going on rather than just symptoms,” she says.
Those of us with chronic pain shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. “Women should be open with their providers and not be scared or ashamed of sharing any fears of negative experiences they’ve had with other providers in the past,” says Dr. Rispoli. She recommends asking your primary care physician for a referral to a doctor with specific credentials in pain management. “Having experience treating this type of pain is very, very important,” she says.
While living with chronic pain can be difficult, it does force you to slow down, which isn’t always a bad thing. I may not be posting any photos at the top of a 14,000 ft mountain peak (at least, not one I didn’t get to by car), but that’s okay. My son is learning an important lesson in accepting people’s differences, and in being compassionate toward anyone in pain or who is struggling. I’m learning to stop looking too longingly at what others achieve, and focus on all that I’m accomplishing. And best of all, we’re still making plenty of memories making art, reading books, and even on the occasional walk in the woods.
Priscilla Blossom is a freelance journalist and content writer specializing in health, parenting, arts and culture, and queer and Latinx identity. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Gardian, Oprah, Parents, and Salon, among others. She is also part of Dotdash’s Anti-Bias Review Board, and spends her free time practicing yoga and adventuring with her young son.
Originally Appeared on Glamour