What The Heck Is Period Pain Anyway?

A YouGov poll, which surveyed 1,000 women for Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett, found that 52% of women have suffered from period pain so badly it affected their ability work. That’s more than half the women you know. 

period pain
52% of women said their period has affected their ability to work.

According to John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, for some women, period pain can feel, “as bad has having a heart attack.” Which, we’re guessing, is pretty bad. 

He adds, “It [research into period pain] hasn’t been given the centrality it should have. I do believe it’s something that should be taken care of, like anything else in medicine.”

Guillebaud’s comments are backed up with hard facts: scientists carry out five times more studies on erectile dysfunction than PMS symptoms. That’s despite the fact that 90% of women suffer from PMS every month and just 19% of men suffer from erectile dysfunction. IKR. Something to remember when your stomach hurts so bad you’re gnawing on a pillow.

Managing period pain

We spoke to Pink Parcel's resident GP, Dr Sarah Johns, about what to do when the cramps strike and to find out: what is period pain anyway? Here comes the science:

She says, “Period pain is caused by contractions of the uterus due to hormone changes in your menstrual cycle. The uterus has a very muscular wall and when these muscles contract, blood vessels are compressed, reducing the blood supply to the womb, and starving it of oxygen. This adds to the discomfort experienced. Prostaglandins are chemicals released by the body which increase contractions of the uterus and are also linked with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (constipation, diarrhoea and/or bloating) which are also very common during your period. Period pain due to menstrual cramps with no underlying abnormality is called primary dysmenorrhea. When there is an underlying cause for period pain it is called secondary dysmenorrhea.”
According to Dr Johns, up to 9 out of 10 women will have painful periods at some point in our lives. That’s a whole lot of us. So how do we get the doctor to take it seriously?

Be open

Dr Johns recommends being honest with your doctor about how it’s affecting you. “You should tell your GP how your painful periods are impacting on your life as it is important they understand your symptoms in this context to know how best to help you,” she says.

“Always tell your doctor if you have pain in between your periods,bleeding between periods or pain during sex" she advises, "It could mean there’s an underlying cause such as endometriosis, adenomyosis (where tissue grows within the uterine muscle wall itself) or pelvic inflammatory disease.”

From here, your GP can assess whether you need to have any further investigations into the cause of your painful periods as well as help you manage them.

A deeper look

If your GP thinks it’s necessary, be prepared for an internal examination. She adds, “They may need to check that the pelvic organs are healthy depending on the associated symptoms you may have. They can also offer you a variety of prescribed treatments including pain relieving medication (such as mefanamic acid or naproxen) or contraceptives which will work to reduce period pain as well as preventing unplanned pregnancy.

“They may need to arrange for some investigations such as a pelvic ultrasound scan which can identify causes for painful periods such as fibroids, which are very common benign growths in the womb. Your doctor may suggest referral to a specialist if treatments are not working or the symptoms you describe suggest an underlying cause, which they are not able to treat without specialist assessment by a gynaecologist.”

Natural cures

While there are no cures for period pain currently, there are a variety of different treatments which can help to relieve the symptoms. This includes medication available over the counter (such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen), prescribed pain relief, hormonal contraceptives such as the combined contraceptive pill, progesterone only pill, contraceptive implant, injections or hormone releasing coils (Mirena). Copper coils tend to be avoided as these can increase period pains.

Exercise is very good at relieving period pain. It helps boost endorphins which are natural pain killing hormones in the body. A hot water bottle or a warm bath can relieve period pain. Relaxation techniques including yoga can also reduce period pain. Vitamin B and magnesium may also improve period pains. Acupuncture may help some women.

When nothing is working

Don't suffer in silence. Dr Johns says, “If you are still finding it difficult managing period pain despite trying treatments above or you have tried more than 2 of the above treatments with no improvement, then you should consult your GP to discuss a referral to a gynaecologist. They may wish to investigate the cause of your period pain further or offer alternative treatments to stop you having periods."

We know period pain is a problem for you, after reading the comments on our recent cannabis tampon blog. How do you manage it? Let us know in the comments.

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