Two Healthcare Anecdotes

I have had recurring shoulder pain for about five years now, to the degree that, when it’s really bad, I have to screw my courage to the sticking place and grit my teeth to do things like open car doors, change my shirt, or do any kind of reaching/pushing/pulling. It’s not always that bad, sometimes it pretty much goes away, and sometimes it’s just a dull ache, and sometimes it only hurts when I make a big, sudden motion, but when it’s bad it’s awful. Recently it has been bad all the time. There wasn’t a big injury that started all of this off, I think my joints were just fatigued.

When it first started, I was confused and in pain for about a week before making a short-notice appointment at my doctor’s office, and since they don’t do walk-in appointments the receptionist asked if I wanted to see a doctor other than my usual doctor, as she was booked pretty solid. My shoulder hurt so much that I would gasp and almost cry every time I had to use it to get out of my car, so I said yes. On the day of my appointment, the (male) doctor moved my arms around, but didn’t do tests other than looking at my range of motion. I explained that it didn’t hurt when he moved my arm in circle, it hurt when I moved it in an outward motion, but he didn’t ask me to show him the painful motion, and didn’t feel my shoulder joint, and he seemed annoyed with me that I had come in and had an alright range of motion. He said, “it’s inflamed, take an ibuprofen,” and left the exam room.

On Thursday I went to the doctor again. Between my first appointment and my second one, the shoulder pain had escaped the bounds of my left shoulder and had begun to affect my right shoulder as well. If my left started hurting, I knew it was only a matter of time before my right started hurting just as the left eased up. It was an unpleasant cycle of shoulder distress. In the past year or so, my right shoulder got worse and worse and worse while my left remained at about the same level of bad. On the day of my appointment, my (female) doctor felt my shoulder joints, asked about the nature of the pain, asked me to show her the painful movements, demonstrated where I had weakness in my arms by having me push against her arms, had me show her my range of motion beyond doing arm circles, and when I said “that hurt right here,” pointing at a spot on my shoulder joint, she said, “it’s your bursa in your joint that’s causing you trouble, you pointed right at it.” She told me that I have tendinitis in my left shoulder and bursitis in my right shoulder. And then, she said that for the bursitis she recommended a steroid injection, and if I went down to the pharmacy to get it, she could do the shot right now. I left my appointment with two actual diagnoses, and a freshly jabbed shoulder joint, and an exhortation to go the physio.

When women talk about not being believed by healthcare professionals, it extends beyond reproductive health and into the rest of the body. I was so hurt and upset by the first appointment and the irritated “it’s inflamed” comment, so anxious that I had overreacted to my own pain, so put off by the interaction, that it took me five years to talk to a doctor about it again. I decided that I must just be being a baby, and the doctor made it pretty clear that I had just wasted his time, so it seemed better to me to just live with severe shoulder pain which has affected my life in a myriad of ways rather than hear another “you have inflammation, take an ibuprofen” from a doctor who didn’t care about me or believe me.

It took a long time (and a traumatic IUD experience) to build enough trust with my doctor to ask her about my shoulders. It had to get to the point where my right shoulder hurt all the time, and I would be icing it and taking painkillers multiple times a week. I played down how much it hurt to myself and to Josh, and didn’t mention it to many other people. I broke down crying Thursday night, overwhelmed by the feeling of being believed and being told that I was right, there is a serious problem, and that I know my body well enough to say “this is where it hurts, and this is how”. I’m imagining my life with a shoulder that isn’t constantly in pain, and it’s a marked improvement.

The thing is, this isn’t the only pair of healthcare stories I have where a male doctor dismissed my knowledge of my own body and didn’t believe me, and where I had to build up trust for years to even mention the same, continuing issue to my doctor. I know I’m not the only woman who has these stories, and while I also understand that having a doctor who is a woman when you’re a woman isn’t a universal cure-all, still, if you have a uterus, I cannot recommend finding and going to a doctor who also has a uterus highly enough.

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