Fibromyalgia: ‘Women’ and ‘Men’ Differences?

“The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history”, George Eliot

I have based my unproven theory about why more women than men are diagnosed with fibromyalgia upon a feminist analysis of the political and cultural roles of women in societies in general- both historically and at present. However, now how gender is currently socially constructed and is much more fluid, it has indeed become a complex issue and not as straightforward as I previously thought. I have begun to look less at statistics in regard to the ratio of women to men because I believe that fibromyalgia is a catch-all term that includes all genders who suffer from chronic pain and fatigue and it is under-reported by many who define themselves as traditionally female or male.

The concept of fibromyalgia developed as more and more women began to speak out about  similar characteristics and symptoms which encouraged physicians to deem that it was  primarily a  condition that afflicted more women than men. There isn’t any way to be accurate about how much of the population of any country has fibromyalgia. In many places there isn’t even a term for the condition; more to the point many traditional men have been hesitant to report the symptoms to a health care professional for fear of being seen as less masculine. There is little doubt that for bi-sexual and trans-gendered people the issues are even more complex. But, things are changing as more military personnel are reporting post traumatic stress syndrome, formerly known as ‘shell shock’ and then ‘Gulf War Syndrome’.

It is widely known that traditional women, more so than traditional men, are more prone to seek medical attention for both their families and themselves. Furthermore, women are generally more sensitive to bodily changes and other nuances that are often difficult to describe. An example of this is the reported “sense of impending doom” that women often experience weeks or days before a heart attack (I can attest to that!). Yet, when women mention to their health care providers symptoms that should be suspiciously attributed to heart disease, there is still a general misconception that heart disease is  primarily a man’s condition. Conversely, when a woman discusses her chronic pain, fatigue and other symptoms, the label of fibromyalgia is more readily applied. If a man admits to having chronic pain  the affected areas are more likely to be vigorously examined and attributed to, for example- a disk, muscular strain and so on. It is my view that emotions, in particular, anxiety, is responsible for fibromyalgia. Since emotions are culturally and socially defined, girls are perceived to be sensitive and emotional whereas boys are rewarded for being dominant. However, the differences are in how emotions are expressed rather than experienced.

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So why is it that women and men are treated so differently within the health care systems, in particular with regard to chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression? It is true that fibromyalgia is not life threatening, and in my view is caused by life long anxiety issues in highly sensitive persons, but given the large numbers of people affected by the condition why is the focus still explored as primarily a woman’s condition? Even more to the point why is it that researchers are keen to explore what they perceive as  problems within the woman’s body which causes fibromyalgia? I have written extensively about the highly sensitive person and fibromyalgia, which I believe to be the same as the highly anxious person. This in turn, becomes a mentally unstable issue that is more likely to be primarily another woman’s  problem as more women  report and take mood altering medications than men. Yet, in the last few blogs I have written the ones who have come forward recently to write about anxiety have been  (white, privileged, self identified) men, which, by the way, takes a great deal of courage.

Sociologically women’s lot in life, world wide, is and has always been more difficult, suffering more frequently and dramatically from sexism, domestic abuse, victims of crime, ageism, racism, sexual abuse, incest, violence, poverty,  and the many inequities in economic realms. It is little wonder that women suffer more from life long anxiety and their spirits are often broken. The question I often ask myself is why this has become medicalized and the conditions of both anxiety and fibromyalgia thought to be shameful when it is because of  the socially constructed women’s role in life? Searching for a lack of this or that in the bodies of those with fibromyalgia seems to be the end result – the effects- of the condition rather than the cause.

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High School painting of Jaden Devine, Whistler, B.C.

The exposed heart in this oil painting is how I interpret the ways in which most women are vulnerable. Even at this young age, without professional training, Jaden’s paintings  usually reflect the open, bursting heart of women. Are our young women intuitively aware that life will be more difficult for them? Do the pressures of beauty and fashion,  sexual activity, struggles within social structures that are constraining, and the ‘glass ceiling effect’ in the workplace, perpetuate our life long struggles with anxiety, even in the most ‘stable’ privileged environments? Even more to the point what emotions are not discussed in the fibromyalgia rhetoric regarding  people of color, LGBTQ communities,  in war torn countries, among street people and other disadvantaged groups that lead to this dis-ease? Surely their pain and fatigue, among the other myriad of symptoms, are as under reported as those of more privileged groups, such as white men, that is, those who themselves suffer from anxiety expressed as a different phenomenon, particularly those in the military who have fibromyalgia known as PTSD?

I know more about fibromyalgia now than I did ten years ago and I am more than ever convinced that while there are strategies we can employ to work with our anxieties the idea of fibromyalgia itself is socially constructed to mask  as a  disease, when in fact, it is an expression of wounds to our psyche from which all people suffer to a certain degree.

Happy International Women’s Week!

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