Growing Pains – Honi Soit
At eleven years old, my body was assaulted by unexpected shooting pains. It was a bittersweet pain; a nuisance but a relief. My cells had finally started working so I could finally enjoy the fruits of puberty.
But the growing pains didn’t stop there.
As I got older, I was forced by bitter-faced adults into a rude awakening: With age, there will always be pain. Half awake and still rubbing my eyes, I assumed they were complaining of arthritis. But as I approached my twenties, I was disturbed by another rude awakening: my first pap smear.
Like many my age, a visit to the gynecologist is something we put off until necessary for fear of pain. They’re kind of like a lingering toothache that you neglect until it turns into a full-blown infection. Only then do you reluctantly drag yourself to do a root canal.
Just like dental work, gynecological procedures can be very painful. The difference is that no one will dispute your dental pain. No one will say “it’s all in your head” or deny you a generous prescription of very strong painkillers.
Pain and discomfort during gynecological services are rather normalized. They are left untreated, overlooked or overlooked as a necessary part of reproductive health that we have to deal with. Cervical biopsies, IUD insertions, and hysteroscopies are just a few of the procedures that can be extremely painful, traumatic, and often performed without anesthesia. At most, doctors advise taking a Panadol before these procedures to dull the pain. However, Panadol is not even enough to calm a toothache. Imagine if your dentist offered you a root canal treatment with nothing but a Panadol. Personally, I’d rather have that dent pulled out with rusty pliers.
Myths regarding the anatomy of the cervix are just one contributing factor to the normalization of pain in gynecology. Many medical providers mistakenly believe that the cervix has few or no sensory nerves although this has been refuted by research, including that of Goldstein and Komisurak in their 2020 op-ed, “Is the Evidence based on what we know or don’t know? ‘Secrets of the cervix.’ Yet this belief still circulates in the medical field, fueled in part by some professionals’ disinterest in learning the intricacies of the female reproductive system.
As Elizabeth Chloe Romanis et al. state in their 2021 article, “Reviewing the Womb,” this disinterest is reinforced by the idea that female bodies are littered with complexities. The uterus is considered a “mysterious” organ because it is a deviation from the male body and therefore requires patriarchal interference. Meanwhile, male bodies are considered superior as they are traditionally depicted as elegant, simple and efficient and are therefore the default body treated in medicine. Studies ignore our bodies because they are seen as a bad investment for researchers who see our innate complexities as a time-consuming burden, rather than a value to understand.
Ultimately, the normalization of pain and discomfort within gynecology leads to dangerous consequences. That’s why many delay pap smears only to find they’ve developed preventable cervical cancer. This is why we dread having an IUD, with some of us preferring to risk a pregnancy scare rather than face the white-hot pain. That’s why we clench our fists and bite our tongues before the doctor even glances at us; we are conditioned to endure the inevitable impending pain.
For women and others in need of gynecological care, the “growing pains” never stop. The transition to each phase of our lives is marked by a new type of pain, whether it is menstruation, pregnancy, chronic reproductive health issues or menopause. And it is only the physical pain that we endure. Adding to this list is more than unthinkable. Yet the medical community has convinced us of the incredible irony that excruciating pain is normal. It’s time we recognize this mistake and not just face our pain, but challenge it.