From the 14th to the 20th August 2017, LloydsPharmacy will be hosting its second annual Women’s Health Week campaign. The nationwide campaign aims to bring women’s health into focus and is an opportunity for women to find valuable information, answers and advice. In support of this, Online Doctor has put together an essential guide to period pain.
If you’re struggling to manage your period symptoms, or if you’d simply like to know more, read on.
What causes period pain?
Most people know that your period marks the point in your menstrual cycle when the womb lining sheds and exits the body through the vagina, often causing an unpleasant cramping feeling in your tummy.
This cramping feeling is caused by the womb contracting, which it does to encourage the shedding of the lining. During these contractions, the blood vessels in your womb lining are compressed and the oxygen supply is cut off; leading to the release of pain-triggering chemicals. Chemicals called prostaglandins are also released to encourage the contraction of the womb, further boosting the pain.
Experiencing period pain, in other words, is not usually cause for concern. Women who get particularly severe cramps may simply release more prostaglandins than others, meaning their womb contractions – and therefore their pain symptoms – are stronger.
Are painful periods normal?
When it comes to period pain, there’s no such thing as normal. Some women may not experience any pain, while others will have severe symptoms each time they menstruate – but still be otherwise healthy.
Severe period pain is often accompanied by symptoms in other areas of the body. You may have a backache, pain in the legs, an upset stomach or generally feel tired and unwell. This pain can be quite debilitating, to the extent that some women and girls who suffer these symptoms are forced to take time off work or school during their period.
In some cases, heavy and painful periods can be a sign of an underlying condition such as endometriosis or fibroids. Usually, these conditions are accompanied by other symptoms such as irregular periods, bleeding between periods, unusual vaginal discharge and pain during sex.
How is period pain treated?
Period pain that is not related to another health condition such as endometriosis can be treated in a few different ways. The most common treatment for mild to moderate period pain is an over-the-counter painkiller. Studies have shown that period cramps are better relieved by anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (which is the active ingredient of Feminax) or aspirin than by paracetamol, however you may still find the latter effective, particularly in combination with a stronger painkiller such as codeine.
If you don’t want to take painkillers, or you can’t for medical reasons, there are some other pain management techniques you can try. Applying heat to your abdomen can help to relieve pain; you can take a warm bath or shower, or apply a heat pad or hot water bottle (this heated aromatherapy cushion from Tisserand is scented with lavender to aid in relaxation). Many women also find relaxation techniques and gentle exercise such as yoga helpful.
More severe period pain that cannot be relieved through over-the-counter painkillers, heat or relaxation techniques can be treated with the combined contraceptive pill. Even if you aren’t sexually active, you can receive a prescription for the pill for your painful periods. The combined pill thins out the womb lining and limits the production of prostaglandins, which usually makes your periods lighter and less painful. Other forms of combined contraception can have a similar effect; if you don’t want to take the pill, ask your doctor about the contraceptive injection or implant.
If your painful periods are being caused by a separate condition, then specific treatment may be required. Endometriosis is usually tackled with a mixture of painkillers, hormonal medicines, and – when necessary – surgery. Endometriosis is a condition in which cells behaving like those in the womb lining grow outside the womb. They can grow on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, bowel and stomach and can cause pain and other unpleasant symptoms, particularly during menstruation.
When is it appropriate to visit the doctor for period cramps?
The main thing to bear in mind with period pain is that you should always trust your body. If your periods start to become very painful or change in any other way (e.g. they become irregular or heavier) you should visit your GP.
Very severe pain that is interrupting your normal routine is always worth talking to a doctor about; it may not be a sign of an underlying condition, but there’s a good chance that your doctor will be able to assist with pain management, whether by prescribing combined contraception or recommending certain painkillers. As reported last year, period pain is now thought to be as severe as the pain of a heart attack – in other words, there’s no shame at all in seeking medical help for your menstrual cramps.