Updated: Jan 1, 2021
I was convinced there was something wrong with me. Something specific. The pain was consistently radiating from the same area: the back of my head right above my spine. I couldn’t tell if the doctors didn’t believe me, or if they didn’t care enough to find out what was actually wrong with me. – from You’ve Got Some Nerve by Derryen Plante.
For more than two years, I suffered from debilitating pain after an assault that left me with a Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD. The day the assault happened, the doctors put my arm in a sling and told me I’d be fine. But I wasn’t. Day after day, week after week, the pain continued, and my life fell apart a little at a time. I saw doctor after doctor, but they didn’t believe me, and after a while, they thought I was simply drug-seeking, even though I refused pain medications.
How many of us go through this same ordeal? We have an illness, or a problem, and we ask for help over and over again, only to have our concerns dismissed? As a woman, I realized that doctors were more likely to attribute my constant debilitating headaches to hormonal fluctuations or female hysteria, rather than dive deep into a diagnosis.
An April 2020 article in Prevention magazine looked at this common practice of misdiagnosing women. The article quotes a University of Copenhagen study that found in cases of more than seven hundred diseases, women are diagnosed an average of four years later than men. Four. Years. Later. If you’re a woman of color, the rates of misdiagnosis are even higher. That’s reprehensible.
The Journal of Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology ran an article discussing a 2011 study by Steinbrecher, Koerber, Frieser, and Hiller. The study found that Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) made up two-thirds of all reported symptoms that brought women into the doctor’s office. Think about that for a second. Two-thirds of women who went to the doctor walked out without a diagnosis; their symptoms chalked up to “medically unexplainable.” Honestly, I’m not surprised. It took twenty years for doctors to figure out that women metabolized Ambien differently, and should take half the dosage. Twenty years, thousands of women reporting symptoms, before anyone thought, Hey, maybe there’s something to look at here and it’s not just all in her head.
If you’re shocked and frustrated by that information, imagine being a woman who can barely function because of the pain, dizziness, cognitive issues, and visual problems she is having, only to be told it’s all in her head. That was me. The intensity and frequency of my migraines following the assault made me suicidal. I went to the hospital—and left with anti-nausea medicine. That kind of laissez-faire medical care is the equivalent of putting a band-aid on an amputation.
The only way to have doctors hear you is to keep speaking up. Be your own advocate. If you don’t like the answer this one gives you, go to another, and another, until you find one who doesn’t shake his head and send you home with some Pepto-Bismol. Try an osteopath or naturopath. These doctors take a more holistic approach to medicine, and look at the whole body, and the interactions of environment, diet, and lifestyle on your health.
You know your body best, and you’re the best champion for your health. Keep on speaking up, and digging to find the answers you need. To read more about what I went through, check out my book here.