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The IUD debate proves female pain is seldom taken seriously

Women have begun sharing harrowing stories of their experiences with the contraceptive device on social media, saying they felt under cared-for and misinformed during the insertion process.

It’s inherently clear that women find it much harder than men to have their bodies understood within the medical sphere.

Last month, responding to an article published in the Times titled ‘why we all need pain relief when having an IUD fitted,’ BBC’s Naga Muchetty shared her experience from having the contraceptive device fitted.

She described the process as ‘one of the most traumatic physical experiences’ of her life, calling for an end to female pain when fitting an IUD.

Hearing Muchetty’s cries, small business owner Lucy Cohen started a petition demanding better expectation management of what the insertion and removal of an IUD entails (currently the NHS website suggests some ‘mild discomfort’), as well as more pain relief options as standard.

So far, it’s well surpassed the initial 10,000 signature mark and has encouraged thousands of women to come forward with similarly excruciating encounters to Cohen, for whom the procedure was so painful, she ‘didn’t recognise the noises coming from [her] mouth.’

‘I had to tell them to stop because it was so bad, I felt like I was going to throw up,’ said one. ‘I fainted and loss consciousness,’ said another.

The gender health gap has routinely seen women being taken less seriously by professionals, particularly in the field of female-specific illnesses like endometriosis – with little to no progress.

And, regarding contraception, you only had to witness the outraged reaction towards potential blood clotting from a COVID-19 vaccine to understand how often women’s reproductive health is overlooked.

While the risk posed by AstraZeneca is just 0.0004%, one in one thousand women develop a blood clot every year from taking the pill.

The fact that women must work extra hard just to prove what they already know about their own bodies – and beg for necessities in order to be physically well – is symptomatic of a wider historical issue. Men are more privileged that women within the medical community and have been for decades.

It boils down to a lack of comprehensive reserve and a pervasive shame around our bodies which must be addressed through improved education, more open conversations in medical settings, and a genuine commitment by the government to close the gender health gap.

Without seeking to shame doctors, Cohen suggests that in failing to acknowledge the severity of the pain some women are enduring, they’re essentially gaslighting their patients.

‘A lot of women have been coming back to me saying, “I thought it was just me, I thought there was something wrong with me and that’s why it hurt so much”,’ she told Vogue, explaining that she believes we are on the verge of a ‘medical Me Too’ moment. ‘That’s why I’m saying there’s a huge problem in terms of consciously or subconsciously silencing people.’

But the tide does appear to be turning, even if at a snail’s pace.

Thanks to Cohen, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) have officially released a statement, part of which reads:

‘We are concerned to hear about the pain some women have experienced during their IUD placement, and this has sparked discussion amongst healthcare professionals.’

Illustration of the new Ballerine IUB which looks like two circles with copper balls attached.

As specialists working in women’s health, they add that they’re striving to ensure women’s choices are acknowledged and respected, including appropriate pain relief.

They’re also looking to develop a three-dimensional coil (the basic principle behind it is exactly the same as the copper IUD, but it’s about half the size), which feels like the first real innovation in decades.

In the meantime, resources like The Lowdown – the world’s first contraception review platform – have emerged to improve our access to knowledge so we can make more informed decisions about our bodies and know what to expect.

As Muchetty rightly urges, no one should be in agony.