What Is Medical Gaslighting – Migraine Buddy


What Is Medical Gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting happens when a healthcare provider downplays or questions a patient’s own descriptions of their symptoms, or manipulates their understanding of their condition. It can occur in different ways, knowingly or unknowingly, but can similarly impact the patient.

It’s difficult to nail down an arbitrary definition of medical gaslighting because it’s often very nuanced. But if the doctor is brushing aside the pain or causing you to self-doubt the validity of the symptoms, leaving you more confused about the condition, you may have just experienced medical gaslighting. 

Without an arbitrary definition of medical gaslighting, that doesn’t mean the meaning of medical gaslighting is obscure to us. As migraine patients, we are often on the receiving end of it and you know what that makes you feel: guilty and even more confused about the disease.

Medical gaslighting often stems from biases like age, race, or gender, or skepticism caused by the complexity or invisibility of migraine symptoms. Sadly, gender bias with migraine is often prevalent because the fact is that statistically speaking, women are more likely to suffer from migraine compared to men.

Interestingly, the word “gaslight” has an interesting cultural history behind it. All you history buffs, sit tight as we dive back in time to 1944!

Medical Gaslighting From Cinematic Lens

*Cue tense and dramatic music and a black-and-white scene in a stately home*

The term “gaslight” originated from a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman, that is based on a 1938 play.

Bergman plays a sweet young woman who had witnessed the death of a beloved aunt. Years later she marries and returns to the home she inherited from her aunt. Over time the newlywed begins to doubt her sanity. She’s confined to her home, her new husband tells others she’s not well and she begins to hear noises and sees the gas lighting in the home dim. The husband tells her she’s imagining things.

Sounds familiar?

Fast forward to today, the word “gaslighting” has been popularized in popular culture and relational psychology. While it’s often associated with the dysfunctional dynamics between a couple, gaslighting can and often happens in the medical field. This is known as medical gaslighting.

Examples Of Medical Gaslighting

While dismissive behavior and creating doubt may be the most well-known forms of medical gaslighting, there are other signs to look out for. The New York Times identified 5 signs of medical gaslighting:

·       Your provider continually interrupts you, doesn’t allow you to elaborate and doesn’t appear to be an engaged listener.

·       Your provider refuses to discuss your symptoms.

·       Your provider will not order key imaging or lab work to rule out or confirm a diagnosis.

·       You feel that your provider is being rude, condescending or belittling. Your symptoms are blamed on mental illness, but you are not provided with a mental health referral or screened for such illness.

Some other signs of medical gaslighting include not taking the migraine symptoms seriously or just brushing off the severity of the symptoms with generic advice, like taking paracetamol. We have had people in the Migraine Buddy community who shared their experiences with medical gaslighting where the doctor prescribes paracetamol, and then attributes the migraine attacks to paracetamol. The irony is real.

The invisibility of migraine adds to this issue as their symptoms are often not well understood, causing both medical professionals and those living with migraine to underestimate their impact on daily life. Hence, it’s essential for patients to be their own advocates and for healthcare providers to take their patients’ symptoms into consideration.

Effects Of Medical Gaslighting

Ultimately, medical gaslighting can lead to a loss of trust, self-doubt, and reluctance in communicating symptoms to medical providers. At some point, it might even stop you from visiting the doctor because you might actually start subconsciously agreeing with the doctor that you are overthinking. These are various forms of medical trauma, and the effects of medical gaslighting can be devastating.

How To Deal With Medical Gaslighting?

Migraine patients must become strong advocates for themselves. The Times suggests the following to prepare for a clinical evaluation:

·      Keep detailed notes and symptoms: symptoms, timing, potential triggers, pain description

·      Ask questions: Prepare a list of questions ahead of time – and bring the list to the appointment. Then be prepared to ask follow-on questions to the discussion.

·      Bring a support person: Ask a trusted friend or relative to be in the room with you. Clarify their role ahead of time: take notes, be another set of ears, ask additional questions, etc.

·      Prioritize: Visits last an average of 18 minutes. Capitalize on that time by prioritizing in your notes what you want to get out of the visit· 

Next steps: Tell your provider you want 3 things: a best guess as to what is happening; plans for diagnosing or ruling out; and potential treatment options.

Still Feeling Ignored Or Put Off?

If you leave an appointment feeling ignored, put off, or downplayed, it may be time to consider finding another provider. Seek assistance from a patient liaison or nurse manager, seek out referrals from trusted friends or contact your health insurance for other in-network options. 

Seeking support from fellow migraineurs can be beneficial as well. Look for support groups in your area, use Migraine Buddy for tracking and research, or reach out through a local health care system. 

Finally, if you feel comfortable, reach out to patient advocacy staff if you’ve received in-hospital care, your doctor’s clinic supervisor, or even your state medical board. You may not be the only one suffering from delayed diagnosis or manipulation. 

From ‘Gaslighting’ to ‘Uplifting’

Migraine patients suffer disproportionately from misdiagnosis and delayed care. Our is not a simple medical condition with identified causes and fixes. We may bounce around from specialist to specialist, ruling out conditions. And we lose countless hours of family time, work productivity, and enjoyment of life. 

Turning the issue of gaslighting on its head and uplifting is key to a broader understanding of migraine and better treatment. Support providers doing research and good work in the migraine field. Support fellow migraine patients. And keep pressing for good care in the medical system. We’re worth it.

This article is written by Susan Bassett, one of our amazing #MBvolunteers. If you would like to make a difference in the migraine community, join us here!

Jenny from Migraine Buddy

You Will Also Like

Back to Blog

Leave your mobile to get a link to download the app