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.

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.

jaden's picture 003

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!

About Barbara Keddy

I am a Professor Emeritus, School of Nursing, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. My B.Sc.is in Nursing while my MA. and Ph.D. are in Sociology. I am married, a mother and grandmother living on the east coast of Canada. I have personally lived with fibromyalgia for about 40 years. I published a book with iUniverse in 2007. This book detailed living with this condition and allowed the voices of twenty women who have fibromyalgia to tell their stories.
This entry was posted in anxiety and fibromyalgia, bi-sexual people and fibromalgia, causes of fibromyalgia, emotions and fibromyalgia, Fibromyalgia, fibromyalgia is socially constructed, gender issues and fibromyalgia, LGBT issues with fibromyalgia, masculinity and fibromyalgia, transgendered people and fibromalgia. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Fibromyalgia: ‘Women’ and ‘Men’ Differences?

  1. Valda Garner says:

    Hi Barbara, I too am acutely aware of the biased treatment that women receive in the U.S. healthcare system. I spent a large part of my career passionately advocating for these women. I have seen horrendous treatment that have led to disastrous outcomes for women, especially with angina and ensuing heart attacks. Your astute observations that are quite detailed indicate that women with Type A personalities are affected with fibromyalgia. There are so many pressures on women and I still feel that today despite the fact that I am retired. I probably feel it more now that I am unable to keep up with “normal” activity. Your blog post is profoundly sad for all the young women today. It is as if our culture sets women up to fail and then to be discarded. I hope you enjoy your day and may peace be with you. Warmly, Valda

  2. Hello Valda: I’m not sure that I could categorize all women with fibromyalgia as a specific personality type as that is so general, but I would say that all the people I have encountered with this dis-ease are extremely empathetic! I realize that women are socialized to be sensitive and empathetic while more aggressive behaviour is considered more appropriate for men. Nonetheless many men have fibro too so it is difficult to categorize. In fact, many men are sensitive and very empathetic (happily for us all)!
    Thank you so much for your comments.
    Barbara

  3. Lars Clausen says:

    HI Barbara, I’m so glad I found your blog. Your insights on gender-bias in medical treatment shed some light for me.

    In sharing my book FIBROMYALGIA RELIEF, and its simple method for turning off our fight/flight/freeze stress response, I often encounter such a desire and effort for identifying a biological physical root cause for fibromyalgia. After so many doctors dismissed the pain as “all in your head,” I understand the desire for identifying a physical cause. The physical cause, as best I’ve been able to understand, is stored peptides at the synapses of the brain cells that trigger a person into a habitual state of fight/flight/freeze. Those stored peptides are physical molecules, but they form and store based on our experiences of life. The mind-body connection. Fortunately, science now understands that these peptides can be replaces, and that’s important because these peptides provide the instructions for how we feel emotionally and how our body functions physically. This is what I share in FIBROMYALGIA RELIEF, a simple method for replacing stored emotional peptides with new peptides that feel calm and put the body in rest and restoration mode.

    I thought that sharing FIBROMYALGIA RELIEF would be an “instant sell,” but instead I’m encountering the understandable resistances to trying “one more thing” and also the resistance to considering that our emotional lives stored as peptides in our brain end up creating the instructions for the function of our body. Your long experience and thoughtful insights are really helping me in my desire to be part of the solution to fibromyalgia.

    Lars Clausen
    Author, FIBROMYALGIA RELIEF,
    http://www.myfibromyalgiarelief.com

  4. Dear Lars:
    I truly believe that the actual CAUSE is anxiety and the after effects are stored in the peptides. I would prefer that the research focussed on this being the cause.Nonetheless if we are intending to TREAT then perhaps ICE or some other form of changing the brain is a TREATMENT. So, I guess it is a matter of semantics.
    Did you read April’s comments in the last blog? Sounding promising!
    Best regards,
    Barbara

  5. Stuart Clark says:

    Dear Barbara
    As a fibromyalgia survivor myself, I see now that anxiety/stress is the trigger point (or emotional trauma) that fires off a big hit of fibro.
    However, I believe it is only highly sensitive people that have normally high levels of anxiety that lead to hyper levels of anxiety that triggers off the FM. I dont think it is so common in men (although it took about 20 years for my diagosis to be confirmed).
    As previously with my own experience, if anxiety levels can be brought down (and good sleep is achieved) then Fibro can almost disapear (to the point where I’ve run marathons and have been winning dance competitions)

    Thanks for making the connections,
    Stuart

  6. Hey Stuart: Winning dance competitions, yahoo! Keep up the good work and running marathons too! What great achievements. Certainly an inspiration to us all,
    Barbara

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