The Problem with Painkillers: They Weren't Made for Women

Posted by Mehr Singh on October 17, 2023

"A Sick Woman and Her Doctor" by Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–1681) is one of many Golden Age artworks capturing upper-class women in consultation with their physicians. To 21st century viewers like us, these portrayals often unmask the inherent shortcomings and gender biases in the medical practices of the time, offering a glimpse into societal norms that shaped medical consultations. For example, these artworks frequently featured pregnant women being examined by doctors, who seemed entirely unaware of the woman's evident pregnancy, underscoring a significant disconnect in understanding women’s reproductive health. Funnily enough, this relationship between medicine and women is not far off to how it is today.

1980? I Wasn't Even Born Yet!

It’s the year 2023. We have cars that can drive themselves, artificial intelligence that can compose symphonies and biotechnology that can edit the human genome, offering the promise of eradicating genetic disorders. Space tourism is no longer a pipe dream but a booming industry, and augmented reality glasses are rapidly blending the digital world with the physical. 

Yet, amidst this technological renaissance, a glaring paradox persists. Over 90% of women continue to grapple with menstrual cramps using an unevolved, 1980s-era solution: over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers. This makes even less sense when you look at how severely dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain) impacts many women’s lives - it’s the primary cause of school and work absences among young women, with 14% to 52% reporting they had to skip their usual routine because of crippling pain.

Anyone reading this has probably used OTC painkillers at least once in their life. Painkillers, after all, are the world’s most purchased OTC medication, with the global analgesics market set to reach US$42.65 billion in 2027

Given their perceived safety, ease of access, immediate relief, and social acceptance, the popularity of OTC painkillers makes sense. However, being the most popular must not be mistaken for being the best. Within the realm of women’s health, the over-reliance on these medications highlights the glaring void of investment and innovation in developing precise, targeted, and holistic treatments to address the underlying causes of menstrual symptoms.