Women’s Health: How to manage Period Pain

No matter where we come from, one thing remains the same: we all have periods. For some of us they are a fact of life that has to be dealt with, for others they are the very bane of our existence.
Much like us, periods come in all shapes and sizes. They can leave us achy, tired, so emotional even we don’t know what we are feeling and curled up on the floor feeling sorry for ourselves as we wait for the painkillers to finally kick in. For some of us a period can leave us unable to live our lives, for some of us a period is a source of shame, for some of us a period is a part of ourselves that we can find difficult to accept. Not everyone’s periods are like that.

Different cultures and religions have grown, over time, to view menstruation as sacred, unclean and as a purely natural process. Some religions and cultures restrict what women can do during their period, others don’t. In previous centuries, periods were thought to cause the wine to sour, crops to rot in the fields and to prevent the bread from rising. Pliny the Elder (Roman naturalist, philosopher and author) even believed that they had the power to control the weather!

Attitudes towards periods have shifted over the centuries, our current age is the most open about them than we’ve ever been. Our mothers and grandmothers had access to less information about periods than we get by high school. With the increase in available information, there’s no reason to suffer any longer, we know what causes the pain and we know how to treat it.

What is a period?

A period (also called menstruation) is defined as the discharge of blood and uterine tissue on a regular basis. Over the course of the menstrual cycle, the womb develops a thick inner lining to cushion the implantation of a fertilised egg, if implantation does not take place the body disposes of this unnecessary tissue via menstruation.

Here are a few facts about periods:

  1. Menstruation can start as early as age eight (this is called precocious puberty) although the average age range is 12-15.
  2. The average length of the menstrual cycle (the time between the start of one period and the start of the next) is 21 – 45 days for a young woman and 21 – 31 days for an adult.
  3. Bleeding lasts, on average, between 2 and 7 days.
  1. The menopause can happen when you are between 45 and 55 years, although some have experienced it as late as 58 and others as early as puberty (this is called Premature Ovarian Insufficiency and can be linked to more problematic illnesses)
  1. There can be environmental factors to changes in your cycle as well: things like stress, weight loss, travel, medication can all alter when you get your period and how it happens when you get it.

Why does my period hurt?

During the period the body needs to shred the inner lining of the uterus to pass it out more efficiently, the walls of the uterus contract and relax to do this (cramps).

Period pain (dysmenorrhea) is apparent in most periods to some degree, with some women having more painful periods than others. There is a number of factors that can make a period more painful: heavy flow, being underweight, being overweight, having just started your period, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis and endometriosis.

What are uterine fibroids/adenomyosis/endometriosis?

Uterine Fibroids are benign (non-cancerous) muscle tumours located in the uterus. Most have no symptoms and it is thought that 20-80% of women develop them by age 50.
Adenomyosis is where the normal lining of the uterus (endometrial tissue) breaks through and starts growing in the muscle wall of the uterus, the tissue acts as normal and can lead to the uterus walls thickening and causing heavy or painful periods.

Endometriosis is when the normal lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. It can cause pelvic pain, period pain, pain during sex, and infertility among others. The symptoms of endometriosis are frequently misdiagnosed as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), fibromyalgia or interstitial cystitis (bladder pain syndrome) can lead to it taking years to correctly diagnose and treat.

Remember, if you are worried about your period for any reason, speak to your doctor. If the pain prevents you from living day-to-day life if you have severe pain, if you have very heavy bleeding or the level of pain you experience has increased over time: speak to your doctor as these could be symptoms of more serious conditions.

Pain relief methods

There are many different period pain relief methods. Sometimes you will need to try a few to soothe your pain and sometimes the methods you used last month won’t work this time. Here are a few that we use:

  • Heat – heat pad, hot water bottle

  • Warm bath or shower

  • Massage – around the lower abdomen

  • Herbal teas – raspberry leaf, ginger, chamomile, fennel

  • Acupressure

  • Cut out fatty, salty foods

  • Cut out caffeine

  • Stay hydrated

  • Gentle exercise – walking, swimming, Yoga, Pilates

  • Over the counter painkillers – ibuprofen, aspirin, paracetamol

  • Stop smoking – for long term pain reduction

  • Supplements – turmeric, vitamin B1, vitamin D, calcium, omega-3, vitamin E, magnesium - speak to your doctor first as they can interact with some medications.

  • Prescription painkillers – naproxen, codeine

  • Contraceptives – work by blocking the hormones that trigger periods