Are heating pads, pain meds, your bed, and the fetal position standard tools for dealing with your period? You are not alone. Severe period pain is called dysmenorrhea (painful periods) and affects many women during their monthly cycles. But is it normal?
In most cases, yes, even severe period pain is simply the byproduct of your body shedding the lining of the uterus every month. In some cases, however, the pain is a sign that something is not right with your reproductive organs. Called secondary dysmenorrhea, this condition can often be alleviated with the right treatment.
How common is dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual periods)?
Painful menstrual periods are surprisingly common. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), patients reported having painful menstrual periods more often than any other period-related problem, and period pain affects more than half of all women.
When does painful menstruation start?
The progression of this symptom depends on whether or not you have secondary dysmenorrhea. In general, the pain begins as soon as a woman gets her first period, and eventually eases over time. Childbirth may also alleviate a woman’s painful periods.
Women suffering from secondary dysmenorrhea, however, tend to experience greater pain over time, not less, and the pain tends to start later in life. The reason? The underlying cause of the period pain is a physical problem that gets worse (and therefore more painful) over time.
What causes normal pain during periods?
The usual cause of pain during your period is the contraction of the uterus as it sheds its lining. These contractions cut off blood flow to the uterine blood vessels, creating the discomfort with which you are familiar. The release of substances called prostaglandins increase the intensity of these contractions and can compound your pain. These processes are normal and expected during your period.
What Causes Secondary Dysmenorrhea?
In some women, there is another, more problematic cause of their painful menstruation. Abnormal growths within the uterus can cause pain so severe that some women find themselves unable to function in their daily life.
There are a few possible causes for secondary pelvic pain and pressure:
- Uterine fibroids are fairly common, especially for African American women. They are non-cancerous tumors that grow on or within the muscle tissue of the uterus. Symptoms of fibroids include heavy menstrual bleeding, pelvic pain and pressure, frequent trips to the bathroom, and loss of bladder control.
- Adenomyosis is a condition in which the tissue that normally lines the walls of the uterus begins to grow in the muscle in the wall of the uterus. Adenomyosis can cause menstrual cramps, abdominal pressure, and bloating before menstrual periods and can also result in heavy periods. The condition can be located throughout the entire uterus or localized in one spot.
- Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the lining of your uterus grows outside your uterus. The tissue bleeds monthly just like your period. The tissue could be in your ovaries, fallopian tubes, behind the uterus, or on the bladder.
There could be other causes of the pain, however. Sometimes the pain is so severe that you are missing school, work, or other types of regular activity. If this is the case, or if it persists when you aren’t on your period, get in touch with your healthcare provider to get a diagnosis. You might be suffering from secondary dysmenorrhea.
There are a few treatment options available if you suffer from heavy and painful periods.
Mild pain can be relieved by placing a heating pad on your abdomen or taking a hot shower. It also helps to get plenty of rest, to massage the affected area, and to avoid salty and caffeinated foods.
If the pain is enough to prevent you from doing everyday activities, start by talking to a healthcare provider. He or she may start by asking you to take anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. These should be taken at the first sign of menstrual pain and should not be used for more than two days. Your healthcare provider may also recommend using birth control pills if the drugs aren’t working.
Your healthcare provider may also want to run some tests or do a procedure to figure out what’s going on. He or she may perform a pelvic exam or an ultrasound exam. In some cases, a laparoscopy may be necessary. This is a surgery that lets your healthcare provider look inside the pelvic region.
Once your doctor finds the cause of the period pain, there are a few treatment options. If endometriosis is causing the pain, there are some hormonal treatments, such as birth control pills, that can help to relieve the pain.
If fibroids are causing your period pain, there is a treatment called Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE). This treatment focuses on cutting off the blood flow to the fibroids. It is a minimally invasive outpatient procedure. UFE has also been proven to be a very effective treatment for adenomyosis.
If other treatment options don’t work and you’re still in pain, then surgery may be needed. A hysterectomy can be performed, usually as a last resort. This will result in the removal of your uterus and will lead to infertility.
At VIVA EVE we are committed to providing high-quality, personalized care for each and every patient we see. We will partner with you to determine the best way to treat your problematic fibroids or adenomyosis.
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