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How Gender Bias in the Medical Field Can Sabotage Women’s Health

“Female hysteria” was once used by medical professionals to undermine the legitimacy of women’s health issues. The phenomenon still exists in the medical field, but this time around, professionals are calling it a “functional disorder.”

Functional neurological disorder (FND) is a medical condition that affects how the nervous system functions. The nervous system struggles to properly send and receive signals to the body, causing issues with speech, communication, and body movements. Its symptoms don’t align with any existing medical conditions, so doctors and researchers constantly debate how to properly diagnose it and how to effectively treat it. That controversy has made the condition relatively neglected by health professionals, and women are the most negatively affected.

At 68 percent, women make up a majority of those diagnosed with functional disorders. Based on that statistic, some researchers believe that being born female is an increased risk factor for the disorder. But the issue isn’t that women are more susceptible –– the issue is that doctors aren’t taken women’s health concerns seriously. 

Medical professionals often refer to FND as conversion disorder, a term coined by Sigmund Freud, to describe when psychological traumas manifest into physical pain. That phenomenon didn’t begin with Freud, however. Before the 20th century it was called “hysteria,” a medical condition that exclusively affected women.

Hysteria, coined after the Greek word for uterus, was considered a psychological disorder that caused exaggerated physical ailments in women. The condition was believed to be caused by the displacement of the uterus or sexual frustration. Treatment ranged from herbs and water to doctors invasively massaging women’s genitalia. In some cases, women were sent to insane asylums to be cured.

Although the term “female hysteria” is retired and now considered derogatory, clinicians still believe in the authenticity of the condition and continue to diagnose it under names like FND or conversion disorder. Diagnoses are still determined with gender bias, with women being up to 10  times more likely than men to receive them.

Those diagnosed with FND, particularly women, face stigmatization that rarely exists for other neurological disorders. For example, Parkinson’s disease is difficult to distinguish from FND, but patients with the former encounter more sympathy and more treatment options. That stigma can prevent women from speaking to their doctors, according to neurologists and FND researchers. Patients question the legitimacy of their pain, and avoid seeking help altogether. 

Along with stigma, misdiagnosis can prevent patients from understanding their own individual health. That issue occurred with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease of the central nervous system. Up until the invention of the MRI in the late 19th century, doctors attributed the symptoms of MS to hysteria. This led to a widely-held belief that the disease was more common in men, when it is actually three to four times more likely in women. 

If issues with gender bias persist within the medical field, women’s health concerns will continue to be neglected and written off as exaggerations. 

Featured Image by Brian Immel on Flickr

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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