Women and Autoimmune Disease: Combating Gender Bias in Medical Treatment

A female jogger runs outside to exercise good health for autoimmune disease

Happy International Women’s Day! In honor of this day, I wanted to share a blog post specifically about women and autoimmune disease.

Women Suffer from Autoimmunity More than Men

According to the American Autoimmune and Related Diseases Association (AARDA) almost all autoimmune diseases are more prevalent in women than in men. For example, with the autoimmune condition systemic lupus erythmatosus (SLE), 9 out of 10 patients are women. Why is this, and what unique challenges does being a women present in the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune disease?

Women Are More Vulnerable to Autoimmune Disease

According to a groundbreaking study from the University of Gothenberg, due to hormonal influences, women are more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases than men. The study found that the male sex hormone testosterone provides protection against autoimmune disease. Since men have ten times more testosterone than women, they have more protection from rogue immune cells than women.

The study explains that testosterone provides protection against autoimmune disease by reducing the quantity of B cells in the body. B cells are a type of lymphocyte (immune cell) that releases harmful antibodies. Testosterone provides protection against B cells by suppressing BAFF, a protein that makes B cells more viable. When testosterone is eliminated, the result is more BAFF, and thereby more surviving B cells in the spleen.

This is why testosterone is critical to the prevention of autoimmune disease, and why women are more vulnerable to autoimmunity due to having less of this hormone.

Challenges Women Face in Diagnosis and Treatment of Autoimmune Disease

Women face an uphill battle when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune disease. According to Penney Cowan, Chief Executive of the American Chronic Pain Association, physicians tend to dismiss women’s pain more than they do men’s. Women are often told that the pain is ‘all in their head’, or, in the case of gender-specific conditions, such as endometriosis, that the pain is just a ‘normal part’ of being a woman. Other research has found that physicians are more likely to attribute women’s pain to psychosocial causes, like stress or family issues, while attributing men’s pain to an underlying physical problem. Medical professionals also order more lab tests for male patients presenting similar symptoms as compared to female patients.

Diane Talbert, an African-American woman from Virginia, spoke to over 10 physicians for over a decade about the pain she suffers from psoriasis, an autoimmune condition of the skin, that she’s had since childhood. However, her complaints were dismissed as psychological or attributed to menopause. It wasn’t until she was in so much pain that she could no longer lift her arms above her head, that a Rheumatologist diagnosed her with Psoriatic Arthritis, a painful autoimmune disease that affects about 15% of patients with Psoriasis.

A Harvard Medical Review piece titled Women in Pain: Disparities in Experience and Treatment further explored the frustrations women experience when trying to get a diagnosis and treatment. The author cites evidence that while 70% of chronic pain sufferers are women, 80% of all pain studies are conducted on male mice or men! Since women also experience different symptoms than men, such as in the case of heart attacks, physicians are also less likely to recognize the condition in women, and may prematurely discharge a woman who has just suffered a heart attack, since she’s not presenting the symptoms a man normally would.

The author also points out that because autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other connective tissue conditions are chronic in nature, they’re not likely to just ‘go away’ on their own, and require active treatment to prevent further damage to one’s tissues. That’s why, if a woman doesn’t get a diagnosis due to gender bias, the consequences could be dire to her health.

Combating Gender Bias in Medical Treatment

So, what can we as women do in order to combat gender bias that medical professionals have against us? As I discuss in the blog post When Your Doctor Doesn’t Believe You, the key to ensuring you get the medical treatment you need is to stand up for yourself and be as assertive as possible. Another tip that I’ve found over the years is to bring someone else with you to your appointments that can be your advocate – someone who can attest to the fact that you’re no longer able to do the things you used to due to your medical issues. While it’s unfortunate that we as women have to rely on others to advocate for us, sometimes this is the anecdotal ‘evidence’ that a physician needs to hear in order to take our plight seriously. If your doctor still doesn’t budge, then find a new provider who will actually help you get the treatment you need and deserve.

Do you believe that you’ve experienced a medical bias when getting a diagnosis or treatment for your autoimmune condition? Please share your experience by commenting below!

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How One Woman Lives Her Best Life Battling Two Autoimmune Diseases

Lisa Diven, a lifelong athlete, has battled two aggressive autoimmune diseases

Lisa Diven was a 23-year old athlete and recent university graduate when she first began what would become a long battle against chronic illness. Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering, she was ready to take on the world. Her health, however, had other plans.

Lisa was running 10 miles a day in preparation for a marathon race when she began to experience pain in her foot. Thinking that it was just a stress fracture, she avoided seeing a doctor until the pain worsened. When she finally did see her physician, he also thought it was just a stress fracture. Six months later, however, the pain had gotten even worse, and Lisa was forced to see a Rheumatologist, who diagnosed her with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease causing painful inflammation in one’s joints.

Although Lisa was relieved to put a name to her pain, she encountered another uphill battle. As a result of step therapy, her medical insurance required her to use less expensive treatments to prove they didn’t work until she could take the more expensive biologic medications that her doctor recommended. Consequently, Lisa was forced to take medications for six months, during which time her symptoms worsened and she experienced irreversible joint damage. Once Lisa finally started taking the biologics, her symptoms began to improve.

For the next 10 years of her life, rheumatoid arthritis continued to ravage Lisa’s every joint. Though she was able to control the disease with treatment, pain was still a major aspect of her life.

Eventually, Lisa and her husband decided to start a family. Due to the high-risk nature of the pregnancy, Lisa went to a high-risk obstetrics practice. Though she got through the pregnancy okay, she experienced a massive flare three months post delivery, and the medications that she had used with success previously no longer worked. She lost her appetite and lost weight, and she experienced migraines, vertigo, anxiety and depression. Lisa was forced to go on an extended medical leave, and later left her job completely. After seeing various specialists, Lisa was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), another autoimmune disease that causes widespread damage to the body’s vital organs, skin and joints.

Lisa is now being actively treated for lupus, all while controlling her existing RA symptoms. She is happy to report that she finally feels like she is returning to being ‘herself’ again. One of the things that helped Lisa the most was connecting with other patients through the Arthritis Foundation, through which she later started a local support group to help others living with the disease. These days, Lisa feels healthy more often than sick, and given her tumultuous health history, that’s a win she’ll take.

To read more about Lisa’s battle with autoimmune disease, visit healthywomen.org.

8-Year-Old Who Died from Autoimmune Diseases Leaves Legacy List of Rules

Ellie Pruitt was an 8-year-old girl who left a legacy of wisdom after passing from autoimmune diseases

Ellie Pruitt was an 8-year-old girl from Canton, Georgia, who passed away from various autoimmune diseases.

When Ellie was just three years old, she began to complain of pains in her legs and fatigue. Ellie’s parents took her to a Pediatric Rheumatologist who confirmed that she had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition causing painful inflammation in the joints. She took steroids and received injections of methotrexate, a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug designed to reduce the inflammation.

During Ellie’s short lifetime, she participated in medical studies to determine what causes autoimmune disease. Both of her parents, Heather and Chuck Pruitt, have autoimmune conditions themselves; Heather was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was a college senior, and Chuck was diagnosed with lupus at age 15.

In addition to the medical studies, Ellie and her family participated in the Walk to Cure Arthritis. They formed a team of families representing four children with the condition, called the Woodstock Warriors Against Juvenile Arthritis. Their team raised more than $5,000 for the cause.

Ellie participated in the Walk to Cure Arthritis with her family

After Ellie passed away on February 6th, her parents found a list of ‘rules to live by‘ that she had written. The rules were: 1) Have fun 2) No fighting 3) No pushing, shoving or hitting, and 4) Always love. After her parents found the list of rules, they decided to share it with her classmates to help comfort them after her passing.

Ellie Pruitt’s list of rules to live by

“It’s amazing that an 8-year-old little girl knew what we should focus on,” her mother Heather Pruitt said. “She started [rule] number 5, but erased it, because she knew that’s the greatest…If you can do all those things, you’re going to be in good shape.”

As a tribute to young Ellie’s wisdom, her hometown decided to display her list of rules in various places around their community. Local businesses like Bruster’s and Chick-fil-A displayed rules 1 and 4 on signage outside their stores.

Chick-fil-A displays a sign with two of Ellie’s rules on it

According to Ellie’s obituary, she was very artistic and loved to do crafts, draw, and paint. She was also a dancer and a musician (she played the piano). Her favorite places were school, church and the beach.

If you enjoyed reading about Ellie’s story, please don’t forget to like, share and comment below! Also, subscribe for more autoimmune disease news.