In a culture where women’s pain is treated differently than men’s, with less care and concern, it’s no surprise that the struggles some people face with intrauterine device (IUD) insertion are often minimized and disregarded.
The IUD is a small, t-shaped contraceptive coil that is inserted into the uterus to prevent pregnancy, and is one of the most effective birth control methods out there. Because of this, it has become increasingly popular over the past decade or so.
However, in recent years, as women have begun to share their stories with the procedure and the accompanying pain they’ve experienced, it’s become clear that patients’ discomfort is sometimes overlooked or ignored, and this has led to ongoing trauma.
Kelli, a Native American navy veteran, tried a non-hormonal IUD at a hospital within the VA system after struggling with other methods of birth control. She says she was initially excited at the thought of finding a solution that might work for her.
“I showed up to find a male doctor was there to insert my IUD. It surprised me as I expected my regular doctor...I felt comfortable in her care. I expected her to be there.”
The doctor tried to insert the IUD, and asked Kelli if she had ever given birth. Crying silently from the pain, she told him no. She felt like she was going to faint. Ultimately, the process was unsuccessful because her cervix was deemed too small.
She has not attempted to try birth control in the five or six years since that experience. “I felt angry and discouraged when I left that appointment. Maybe a little violated.”
A lack of communication was the main factor that contributed to this lingering emotional impact. Kelli wishes they had talked about pain management as an option, and that the “mild discomfort” they said she would experience wasn’t downplayed, as it was one of the most painful things she’s ever gone through. The initial trust she had in her primary care physician was destroyed.
Kate, a Canadian who tried the copper IUD after it was recommended to her by a friend, took an ibuprofen before the insertion, upon her doctor’s advice. The procedure took place with student nurses present, and she felt incredibly vulnerable from the start.
“I was warned I’d feel a pinch, but the second it went in I felt a blinding pain, the worst cramps I’d ever felt hyper-condensed into a black hole the size of a matchstick.”
She was in bed for two days. She still gets phantom pains in her cervix when she thinks about it, and after also getting a cervical biopsy, she is very anxious about any medical professional going near her uterus.
Although these experiences don’t happen in most cases, they are valid and need to be discussed and acknowledged as such.
In terms of what can be done to improve a patient’s journey with an IUD, Kate agrees that communication is key.
“So much of my experience underlined how little we talk about it. When I say the pain was shocking, I mean because I had no experience to relate it to.”
As Kelli says, there are countless articles, studies and anecdotal reports highlighting the gender disparities in medical treatment. “Women seem to have more trouble than men getting our pain taken seriously.”
Women are less likely to be given pain medication, and more likely to be given sedatives when seeking treatment for pain. Women are much more likely to be misdiagnosed and discharged when in pain, even when experiencing a heart attack.
But the more we can talk about these gaps in care, the more likely it is to make a difference. As Kelli notes, “My experience encouraged me to be more proactive with my health and not be afraid to ask more questions. We can’t change a system or way of being until we first identify it.”
This is why sharing stories is so important. Because it helps connect people through their lived experiences. It makes it harder for the medical community to ignore the very real struggles of marginalized people. And it makes it easier for folks to ask the questions they need answers to, and demand the care they deserve.