Medical gaslighting: "My doctor dismissed my pains as pregnancy symptoms; meanwhile, I had ruptured cysts"

A mother of three talks about how she experienced medical gaslighting during her third pregnancy and how speaking up for herself and her baby saved their lives.

An image illustration of a Black pregnant woman

The first thing that frequently enters your mind when you experience any unsettling health symptom is, "This may be a mild ailment that will stop in a short period." But you would feel the impulse to contact your healthcare practitioner immediately if the symptoms persisted or worsened. 

Science has taught us to place a high value on the knowledge of our medical professionals, and we believe they will make the best decisions for our health. But to what extent would you cling to your doctor's advice even when their diagnosis conflicts with what your body and health are telling you? 

Many people today, especially women, have their health worries dismissed or blamed on hormones, stress, or even their own imaginations. If you haven't been a victim of medical gaslighting, you are among the fortunate few. 

Medical gaslighting is when medical practitioners wrongly dismiss patients’ health concerns

Blessing Alaje, a mother of three who lives in Lagos, Nigeria with her family, was happy that she eventually paid attention to her body. She demanded that her doctors perform proper diagnostic tests after telling her for the third time that she was fine and that all of her symptoms were pregnancy-related. 

"I experienced severe abdominal pain as I awoke one morning. Actually, I had been suffering from uncomfortable symptoms during that pregnancy. It was my third pregnancy," Alaje tells SemicHealth. 

Alaje knew the regular ache that had started causing her restlessness and sleepless nights was not a typical pregnancy sign because she had already had two children. 

However, when she first complained to her doctor about the aches, she got responses like, "You are overthinking this" and "You will get some uncomfortable symptoms when you are pregnant; it's normal." The paracetamol tablets that the physicians would go ahead and give her essentially did nothing to ease the agony she was feeling. 

"I complained about the pain again when I visited the doctor for the second time, and they recommended an ultrasound. The baby appeared healthy on the scan. As a result, the doctor discharged me again, telling me to drink plenty of water because kidney stones might be the cause. 

"The discomfort was becoming intolerable as I approached the beginning of my second trimester. I had a restless feeling. Nighttime sleep became a significant problem. The third time I went to the hospital because of the discomfort, I was resolved to confront them,” Alaje narrates. 

Alaje chose to see a different physician instead of the initial physician. She insisted that a scan be performed this time because the first doctor who attended to her had just assumed that she might have kidney stones (without carrying out a proper diagnosis). 

"To my surprise and disappointment, the scan showed that I had a ruptured cyst. In actuality, the cyst was already infected and spreading. 

"The doctors wanted to blame me for not reporting my symptoms sooner, but I reminded them that I had already complained to one of their colleagues twice, and she had not treated it seriously. They then began debating which medication to administer to me", Alaje recalls. 

After she was given an antibiotic, Alaje later developed candidiasis (a yeast overgrowth that is common in pregnant women and can be brought on by antibiotic use), but at least the treatment addressed the primary issue. 

Medical gaslighting is not always intentional but is common

You must have heard the term “gaslighting” when discussing relationship-related topics. It is a form of psychological manipulation that makes you question your own sanity, feelings, and thoughts. It also happens in the healthcare field and may or may not be intentional.

When medical professionals incorrectly discount patients' health concerns, it is known as "medical gaslighting." Mrs. Alaje wouldn't be the first to experience it. It is fast becoming a common issue in both developing and developed countries.

Medical gaslighting has recently been widely used in connection with the long COVID, as some patients who have been experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 long after infection with the coronavirus believe doctors have not been taking them seriously or diagnosing them properly.

Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone. However, reports have shown that people of color and people assigned females at birth are most commonly affected. Katz Institute for Women’s Health showed how female patients get gaslighted continuously about their physical and mental health.

The first step to addressing medical gaslighting is to recognize the signs

Medical gaslighting is obvious in some cases. But, sometimes, you may not know when you are experiencing it. 

“When a doctor, medical or mental health practitioner quickly dismisses or displaces your symptoms to stress or hormones, I’d say that the dismissal and displacement in itself are gaslighting," Angela Karanja, a psychologist, best-selling author, empowerment coach, mentor, and founder of Raising Remarkable Teenagers, tells SemicHealth.

When a doctor makes a patient's health issue or discomfort seem invalid, it can make the patient doubt their own sanity.

These are signs that may show you are experiencing medical gaslighting:

  • When your healthcare provider dismisses or ignores your health concerns or symptoms without cause or appropriate diagnosis
  • When a doctor writes off your symptoms without explanation
  • When your doctor blames you or accuses you of making things up
  • When your doctor diagnoses you solely based on your race, gender, or irrelevant medical histories
  • When you have to argue and confront them before they take you seriously

 “When you go to a doctor or a practitioner with a problem, do not accept a dismissive diagnosis," Karanja points out.

Some phrases may show you have experienced medical gaslighting

If your doctor or primary care provider has said things like the ones below, you may be a victim of medical gaslighting:

  • “You are simply overreacting.”
  • “I’m not sure I understand what you are saying.” (a healthcare provider may say this to evade your questions)
  • “You are not sick; you are reading too much into it.”
  • “There are other patients that are much sicker than you.”
  • “You are only stressed; you just have to drink water and rest.” (even after complaining severally that you feel sick)
  • “There is nothing wrong with you; it’s just hormones.”

Medical gaslighting is dangerous

Medical gaslighting poses a great danger to a sick person “because whatever the problem is, it is left to worsen, and something that could have been caught and curtailed earlier is left to cause havoc in the body,” Karanja explains. 

“The client/patient is also left believing that what they are experiencing is normal and okay even when their whole body and being is telling them something is not right.”

When a medical doctor gaslights you, you may:

  • Get misdiagnosed
  • Get your diagnosis delayed
  • Get seriously sick
  • Get scared

Medical gaslighting can also affect a person’s psychology

Just like gaslighting in relationships, medical gaslighting can affect your psychology, especially when it increases self-doubt. 

“You are made to feel like you are crazy. You are feeling one way; usually not a nice way, and a person with authority is suggesting you are out of your mind to feel like that—this can be discouraging and destabilizing to the mind, to say the least,” Karanja says. 

Medical gaslighting can make people feel helpless, even hopeless. It can even cause self-loathing because you are supposedly feeling and behaving in ways you shouldn’t. The patient can even feel stupid for having gone to seek help when it was just ‘normal’ hormones or stress.

It’s a different case when your doctor carries out a proper physical examination and diagnostic tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, even if they suspect your symptoms are caused by stress and “normal hormones.” In such a case, one can say that due diligence has gone into treating you. 

“However, to just be dismissed and sent home as you came, that's failing the profession's very first commandment of 'first do no harm – primum non nocere' by omitting to do right,” Karanja says.

You can say no to medical gaslighting

We have medical practitioners and providers to help find out what is wrong with us and devise the best treatment methods. However, each individual is the number one person in charge of their own body. 

“Karanja, who is an advocate for empowerment, tells readers, “Whilst we may all not be medical doctors or practitioners, no one and no machine or artificial intelligence is able to represent or articulate anyone’s pain or feelings with a 100% degree of accuracy.

The solution would be to trust yourself and not allow anyone to dismiss or invalidate how you feel. But this takes confidence in a world where we’ve been conditioned to fall for other people’s opinions of us, and we often allow these to define and confine us, especially those in positions of authority. 

It is important that you work hand-in-hand with your doctor, and listen to their medical recommendations for you because they are trained to be experts in this area. 

However, you should learn when to draw the line between your physicians’ doing their job and when they are dismissing your feelings and views as invalid. “Your views and feelings are valid and should be thoroughly considered and investigated before blanket suggestions are thrown at you,” Karanja points out.

Keeping a symptom journal and preparing a list of questions can also help prevent medical gaslighting, as you are certain you have a detailed record of what you feel and experience. 

Also, if you feel uncomfortable with your doctor, don’t trust them enough with your health, or feel like they are dismissing your symptoms without valid reasons, you should consider seeking a second opinion.

“In fact, any practitioner worth their while should be encouraging a second opinion because no one knows all, and there's synergy and better outcomes when we work together as practitioners,” Karanja advises.