Dysmenorrhea is the medical term given to describe painful periods, something many women experience. For some, the pain can be extreme and debilitating with studies showing it comparative to renal colic pain. In addition to pain, women may also experience further symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, dizziness, low back pain, thigh pain, exhaustion and mood changes.
Dysmenorrhea is classified as either primary or secondary. Primary usually starts in early menstrual life without an underlying cause and is thought to be due to excess production of inflammatory chemicals, prostaglandins, which promote contraction of the uterus to help shed the lining. This excess results in stronger contractions, constriction of uterine blood vessels and causes nerve endings to pain to be more sensitive. Secondary dysmenorrhoea however is the result of another underlying issue like endometriosis, fibroids, adenomyosis or infection. Resolving the underlying issue will often help resolve secondary dysmenorrhoea.
As someone who has all her menstrual life experienced intense period pain, I can empathise with women who share similar experience. Is it normal? No, but it is common and for some it can be distressing and interfere with daily routine.
In the patriarchal society we live in women have come to view their menstrual cycle as an inconvenience and burden, often resulting in feelings of guilt for taking time off work or other commitments when pain causes a disruption in normal function. In contrast to what we feel we are expected to do (put up with and get on with it), our bodies innate wisdom is often telling us we need to slow down and nurture ourselves.
While this may be difficult when it comes to work and family commitments if you do happen to suffer with intensely painful periods it may be worth considering how you can make your life easier during this time of your month. Here are some ideas:
Keeping active and fit generally with a regular exercise routine is important for everyone and should be incorporated into your lifestyle. However, research on how it helps menstrual pain has been conflicting. The most important thing is to listen to your body. If you are in extreme pain a gentle walk or some gentle stretches may feel more nurturing than going for a run.
While gentle exercise may help during your period, for some it may make it worse. What is your body telling you to do? I know when I am in pain, movement can aggravate and make worse my symptoms of pain and nausea. Being an active and energetic person generally I find my body wants the opposite, especially the first day or two. My pain is telling me to slow down and give myself permission to rest. We’re not meant to be full pace all the time! Use this time to be quiet, sleep and nurture yourself with a hot water bottle. Also, where possible manage your diary so that it is less busy around the time of menstruation.
Studies have shown that stress can influence dysmenorrhoea. Finding ways to manage your stress generally is important. Breathing exercises that involve using the diaphragm can be helpful. Also, carving our time in your daily or weekly routine for meditation or mindfulness, exercise that you enjoy or any activity that makes you feel positive.
We all know the benefits of a healthy diet and it has been shown that diet can play a role in menstrual pain. Sugar, including refined carbohydrates and alcohol, caffeine, saturated fats and hydronated oils can increase inflammation and influence hormone regulation making worse symptoms especially pain, cramping and bloating. You don’t have to cut out these things entirely, but moderation is key, and women generally find limiting these foods in the week leading up to menstruation can be helpful in managing symptoms.
It is important to remember that every woman’s experience of her monthly cycle is unique. Some women may never experience pain while other’s may find it impairs their ability to go about their usual daily routine. Period pain, especially extreme pain is something that should be addressed, and it is always best to have your GP investigate and rule out any underlying issues and to get advice on how you may manage your pain.
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Najafi. N, Khalkhali. H, et al. Major dietary patterns in relation to menstrual pain: a nested case control study. BMC Womens Health. 2018; 18: 69.
Bavil DA, Dolatian. M, et al. Comparisons of Lifestyles of young women with and without primary dysmenorrhea. Electron Physician. 2016 Mar; 8(3): 2107–14.
Blakey. H, Chisholm. C, & Dear. F, et al. Is exercise associated with primary dysmenorrhoea in young women? BJOG. May 2010; 117:222-24.
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