Women are disproportionately represented in the medical conversation. From a lack of women in clinical trials to shaming discussions about fertility and menstruation, the conversations about women’s health can be incomplete or altogether silent. While there is progress being made, there’s still a long way to go to reach equality in the medical community.
As a woman, educating yourself about your health is important. Being aware of health issues that may affect you because of your biology can help you to ask the right questions when you go to the doctor or know when you shouldn’t let your symptoms be pushed aside.
Health Concerns Unique to Women
When women’s health gets talked about, it’s usually a euphemism for women’s sexual health. It’s often societally frowned upon to talk about periods, vaginal health, or issues that may result from women being sexually active. While some parents are comfortable with it and pick up the slack, others do not, leaving girls with an incomplete understanding of how to be good stewards of their sexual health.
Regular visits to the gynecologist can provide a medical sounding board for discussing what’s normal and noting any changes in vaginal health. You should be familiar with the amount and type of discharge that is normal for you, as a change in the vaginal microbiome can be one of the first indicators that something is wrong.
Even if everything is normal, being proactive about your sexual well-being is important. Pelvic exams and pap smears can detect early cervical cancer or other malformations of the uterus, ovaries, cervix, and vagina. During these visits, you can also discuss any questions you have about spotting, abnormal menstrual bleeding, pain, or birth control. While it’s taken far too much time to come around, the medical community is finally beginning to talk about women’s pain in a more realistic way — hopefully it spills over into other specialties, too.
Beyond sexual health, there are a number of health conditions that, while not necessarily unique to women, do occur more frequently among females. Being aware of the conditions can help identify symptoms and lead to early diagnosis, potentially increasing the effectiveness of treatment.
Particularly relevant to aging women, osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones that makes fractures and breaks more likely to occur. As women reach menopause, estrogen in their system decreases, leaving bones more vulnerable to weakening. If you smoke, drink, or have a low body mass, you’re more likely to develop osteoporosis, and weight-bearing exercise and a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D can help combat the onset.
Sometimes, cells that are meant to keep the body safe and healthy confuse their objective, and start attacking the body instead. This misappropriation of bodily resources results in an autoimmune disease, things like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. These conditions can be hard to detect, as the symptoms are ongoing and easy to attribute to other issues. Common effects of autoimmune disorders are general pain, fatigue, skin irritation, or a mild fever.
Cardiovascular problems such as heart disease, heart attacks, and high blood pressure are often stereotyped as men’s health issues. However, of the 27.6 million Americans with heart disease, half are women. Perhaps most importantly, heart attacks present differently in women than in men, but it’s taught that conventional signs of a heart attack are chest and left arm pain. For women, pain in the neck, jaw, and back, nausea, and shortness of breath can all be signs of a heart problem.
Standing Up for Yourself
It’s hard to walk into a doctor’s office and disagree with a doctor. Your practitioner has gone to school for years, studied, and done clinical residencies to prepare to treat you. However, that doesn’t make a doctor infallible, especially when women’s symptoms aren’t treated the same way men’s are.
If you have a health concern, do some research before seeing your doctor, but never assume what you find is the complete truth. Rather, view the information as a conversation starter and bring your concerns to your doctor. He or she will be able to tell you more, especially knowing your medical history.
If you feel your doctor is not listening to you, then consider finding a new practitioner or getting a second opinion. While it’s not advisable to cherry-pick a doctor based on diagnoses, having someone you feel comfortable speaking with about possible conditions can make all the difference in staying healthy.