At age eleven, my body was assailed by unexpected stabbing pains. It was a bittersweet pain; a nuisance yet a relief. My cells had finally started labouring away so that I could eventually enjoy the fruits of puberty.
But the growing pains didn’t stop there.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been forced by sour-faced adults into a rude awakening: with aging, there will always be pain. Half-awake and still rubbing my eyes, I presumed they were grumbling about arthritis. But as I approach twenty-one, I’ve been disturbed by another rude awakening: my first pap smear.
Like many my age, a trip to the gynaecologist is something we put off until necessary due to fears of pain. They’re kind of like a lingering toothache that you neglect until it festers into a full-blown infection. Only then do you begrudgingly drag yourself to get a root canal done.
Much like dental work, gynaecological procedures can be very painful. The difference is that no one is going to dispute your dental pain. No one is going to say that it’s ‘all in your head’ or deny you a generous prescription of high-strength painkillers.
Pain and discomfort during gynaecological services are instead normalised. They are left untreated, ignored, or written off as a necessary part of reproductive health that we have to cope with. Cervical biopsies, IUD insertions, and hysteroscopies are just a few procedures that can be extremely painful, traumatic and are often carried out under no anaesthesia. At most, doctors advise for a Panadol to be taken before these procedures to dull the pain. Yet Panadol isn’t even enough to subdue a toothache. Imagine if your dentist proposed that you undergo a root canal with nothing but a Panadol. Personally, I’d rather have that tooth ripped out with rusty pliers.
Myths regarding the cervix’s anatomy are but one contributing factor to the normalisation of pain in gynaecology. Many medical providers falsely believe that the cervix has little to no sensory nerves despite this being disproved by research, including that of Goldstein and Komisurak in their 2020 editorial, ‘Is Evidence Based on What We Know or Do Not Know? Secrets of the Cervix.’ Yet this belief still circulates in the medical field, fuelled partly by the disinterest of some professionals 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 heightened by the view that female bodies are littered with complexities. The womb is seen as a “mysterious” organ because it is a deviation from the male body and thus requires patriarchal interference. Meanwhile, male bodies are deemed superior as they’re traditionally depicted as sleek, simple, and efficient and are hence the default body treated within medicine. Studies ignore our bodies because they are perceived as a poor investment for researchers who see our innate complexities as a time-consuming burden, rather than worth understanding.
Ultimately, the normalisation of pain and discomfort within gynaecology poses dangerous consequences. It is why many delay pap smears only to find out they’ve developed preventable cervical cancer. It’s why we fear getting an IUD with some of us preferring to risk a pregnancy scare than deal with the white-hot pain. It’s why we clench our fists and bite down on our tongues before the doctor even glances at us; we’re conditioned to endure the inevitable, incoming pain.
For women and others who need gynaecological care, the ‘growing pains’ never cease. The transition to each phase of our lives is marked by a new type of pain, whether it be menstruation, pregnancy, chronic reproductive health issues, or menopause. And that’s only the physical pain we endure. To add to this list is beyond unthinkable. Yet the medical community has us convinced of an incredible irony which is that excruciating pain is normal. It is time that we recognise this fallacy and not only confront our pain, but contest it.