These are the menstrual symptoms you need to stop ignoring. Period.
Growing up, every month, I’d be absent from school for a day or two. Not by choice, but because I was physically incapable of going.
My period pain was so excruciating, I’d spend the morning doubled over in agony, and the rest of the day making endless trips to the microwave to retrieve my heat pad.
When someone asked why I missed school, I blamed it on ‘food poisoning’, embarrassed to reveal the real reason for my recurrent absences. I never even considered visiting a doctor, because I was continuously told my pain was simply “all a part of being a woman”. I started to see my crippling symptoms as normal.
Except that they weren’t really normal at all.
It wasn’t until I did my own in-depth research, I discovered ‘abnormal’ periods were even a thing. Turns out my pain wasn’t “all part of being a woman” after all. It was a sign of a serious health issue.
So why are both doctors and society continuously dismissing women’s pain? And how are we supposed to know what a ‘normal’ period feels like if we’re too embarrassed to even utter the word ‘menstruation’ out aloud? What the hell is so taboo about discussing a typical bodily function, anyway? We are in 2017, after all.
More importantly, it’s estimated between 30 to 40 percent of women experience period-related symptoms so severe, they’re disruptive to their ability to go about their typical lifestyles. But it can take years of doctors’ visits before a woman receives an actual diagnosis. (The average time to receive a diagnosis for endometriosis, a reproductive health disorder resulting in debilitating periods, is 9.28 years, according to the North American Endometriosis Association Survey.) So if we don’t start talking about periods, stat, our health is going to continue to suffer.
If your menstrual symptoms are so bad they’re affecting your ability to live your life, don’t dismiss them. It’s not normal for having a period to feel like hell. Here are the signs you really shouldn’t ignore…
1. Intense cramping
For most of us, it can be hard to determine exactly what ‘intense’ cramping is, when all pain is horrid and it’s not like we have much to compare against. But if you’re at the point where you’re regularly missing work because your period pain is so severe, and it can’t be controlled with over-the-counter painkillers, you should check in with your doctor.
Intense cramping is one of the hallmark symptoms of endometriosis, a condition which causes the uterine lining to grow outside of the uterus, attaching itself to the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and bowel. It affects around 1 in 10 women, and typically includes symptoms like painful sex, irregular or excessive bleeding, painful urination or bowel movements, and regular back and abdominal pain, and can be managed with medication and surgery.
Extremely painful periods can also be a sign of uterine fibroids – benign growths in the uterus, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection affecting the reproductive organs. It’s always best to consult your doctor if you think your symptoms align, but even if they don’t represent something more serious, there are definitely products out there which can help you through the pain.
2. Heavy bleeding
During our periods, we lose, on average, two to three tablespoons of blood. Gynecologists typically say if your period lasts more than seven days, you go through more than six or seven tampons or pads in a day, or you’ve become anemic, you may be suffering from menorrhagia, a term used to describe heavy menstrual bleeding.
Heavy bleeding can be a sign of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or PCOS, a disorder which causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts on the outer edges. Symptoms vary with this disorder, with some women experiencing short and light menstruation or none at all. Other signs include weight gain, acne, depression, excessive hair growth and loss of scalp hair.
A heavy flow can also be a sign of uterine fibroids, a hormonal imbalance, or PID. So if you’re running to the bathroom every two hours with a soaked tampon or pad, you should definitely consult with your doctor.
Spotting is any light vaginal bleeding which occurs in between periods. There are multiple normal reasons you may be spotting, like if you’ve started a new form of contraception, taken the morning after pill, are ovulating, or simply stressed. One in 10 women experience spotting at some point in their lives, generally due to ovulation.
However, spotting can also be a sign of some more serious conditions. If it happens frequently, it could be a sign of cervical ectropion, a condition where the glandular cells which line the inside of the cervical canal spread to the outer surface of your cervix. This condition is common among women in their childbearing years, though it doesn’t affect fertility.
Some of the most serious conditions spotting can be linked to include polyps – non-cancerous growths which attach to the inner wall of your uterus, adenomyosis – another non-cancerous growth in which endometrial tissue exists in your uterus and grows into the muscular walls, or PID. Because spotting can have an array of causes, both normal and abnormal, the safest option is to check in with your doctor if you’ve recently started experiencing it.
4. Large blood clots
Blood clots (jelly-like lumps of blood) are extremely common for women during the heaviest part of their period. They occur when the anticoagulants (the stuff responsible for preventing your blood from clotting) in your body can’t keep up with the speed of your flow, causing it to appear chunky. However, while the odd blood clot shouldn’t be cause for concern, frequent or large clots the size of a quarter or bigger, can indicate a health condition.
Clotting is often related to endometriosis, adenomyosis, polyps or perimenopause (the stage just before menopause). Some hereditary diseases can also result in individuals becoming prone to excessive clotting, such as Von Willebrand disease, a lifelong bleeding disorder generally inherited from a parent.
5. Extreme lower back pain
Lower backaches are an unfortunate norm for many women during their period. They’re caused by acute contractions in the uterus, which can temporarily cut off oxygen supply to surrounding muscles, including the back. While mild pain is quite normal, severe back pain can be a sign of something more serious.
If the pain is incapacitating in your back and/or stomach, it may be a sign of endometriosis; especially if you experience this pain not only on your period, but throughout your cycle. Extreme back pain can also be a symptom of uterine fibroids, so it’s best to consult with your doctor if you are experiencing it.
6. Painful bowel movements
Many women find they need to run to the loo more often to pass bowel movements on their period. This is because prostaglandins (compounds produced during your period which trigger your uterus to contract), can move over into your bowel. Just like in your uterus, this prompts the bowel to contract, resulting in more frequent evacuation.
But if you also experience pain while evacuating your bowel, you should definitely book in to see your GP, as it can be another red flag sign of endometriosis
7. Irregular menstruation
Not everyone’s period runs like clockwork. At least 30 percent of women have irregular periods during their childbearing years. Menstrual bleeding is considered ‘irregular’ when it occurs more than every 21 days, or if your period lasts for over 8 days. Irregular periods can be a sign of subtle hormonal imbalances, or can be induced by exercise, stress, contraception and age.
However, irregular periods can also be a symptom of PCOS. In fact, women with this condition usually have a strong history of irregular periods, so it’s important to diarize your cycle if you’ve noticed it’s generally quite random, and book in to speak to your doctor for further analysis.
8. Light or no menstruation
Ever thought you got off a little too easy when your period was really light? Or had to deal with a pregnancy scare because your body just decided to skip a period? Light periods are common in teenagers and menopausal women, but if you don’t fit into either of the above categories, you may have reason for concern if your period lasts less than two days, you’re only spotting, or miss one or more regular-flow periods.
Women who go without a period for three months or longer may be diagnosed with amenorrhea (the abnormal absence of menstruation), generally caused by pregnancy, irregular hormone levels or reproductive health issues.
Talking with your doctor is always the best way to find the underlying cause of your symptoms. What’s most important is that you don’t ignore them or brush them off as “just part of being a woman”. Only you know what’s normal for you; so trust your gut. Period.
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Join the conversation: What is your worst experience on your period?