Although we know by now how instrumental the period is in a woman’s reproductive cycle, it is my bet that no woman in the history of ever actually enjoys the ‘time of the month’ on which their period arrives.
To give a very basic overview of what the period actually is, it is the point of the menstrual cycle where a woman’s body discards the lining of the uterus, every time it is absent of an embryo (that is, they are not pregnant). The lining builds up every month in anticipation of pregnancy, so needs to be shed every time this does not happen.
For many women, this process can be a cause of discomfort and pain that ranges broadly in its extremity from woman to woman. Conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can cause abnormally high levels of pain during this stage of the menstrual cycle, and often need to be addressed accordingly.
Diseases like these can have devastating implications on a woman’s fertility (that is, their ability to reproduce), oftentimes pouring salt onto an already very painful, open wound.
The severity of the pain caused by a disease such as endometriosis is due to the condition being caused by endometrial tissue appearing outside of the uterus, which causes excruciating pain in the pelvis. As it is growing from a place it shouldn’t, it has no way to exit the body, as it does when it is growing within the walls of the uterus. This can cause a build-up of tissue that then becomes trapped as it is unable to escape through the vagina. Surgery is a solution many women take in order to get the tissue removed. Unfortunately, this does not ensure that it will not grow back again.
Polycystic ovary syndrome can have the same devastating outcome of infertility for a woman, but offers a lot more ambiguity around the causes associated. The symptoms are strikingly different from endometriosis; including overgrowth of hair, irregular menstrual cycle, acne, and a darkening of the skin. It is a disease that can be treated but not cured.
The conversation for women who do experience excruciating pain around the time of their period, thankfully, is becoming more inclusive of a call to action to go and see a medical professional in case there are serious underlying issues at play. Whereas many women were once led to believe that this level of pain is a normal and unavoidable part of the menstrual cycle, the data is becoming increasingly apparent that this is actually not the case.
Less severe symptoms can include back pain, tender breasts, nausea and vomiting and fatigue. Although the level of pain and discomfort felt by each woman during their period is a broad spectrum, there are few women who make it through every month completely unscathed.
The choice to put themselves on a birth control pill is one that is readily available to women, in consultation with their doctor. This is an option that many have resorted to in order to avoid the crippling pain of a period. Although there are many benefits to being on the pill, there are also risks and possible side effects that can come from it, and should be approached with caution.
As helpless as I can appreciate you feel when your loved one - be she a friend, family member or your partner - is suffering insidious levels of pain you will never intricately understand, there are things you can do to assist in relieving their discomfort as best you are able while their bodies undergo the process it needs to in the name of reproduction.
Short of taking on the pain for them, keep these in mind next time any woman with whom you are acquainted is suffering from painful symptoms associated with their period:
Empathise: the choice of words here is confusing, perhaps, but intentional. Something about offering sympathy to a woman whose pain we will never truly understand feels patronising and insincere. So working to empathise with their pain, insofar as you are able, is a gift that will never go unwelcome. Something as simple as listening and expressing proportional concern is comforting to many women whose experience with menstrual cramping can oftentimes be incomprehensible in the pain it causes them.
Just as knowledge is power, doing your due diligence in understanding what a woman’s body goes through during this time will help you extend sympathy with authenticity and likely make them feel reassured by your obvious concern and commitment to understanding what it is they are going through.
Hot drinks: This is not going to relieve the pain in the same way that something like Naprogesic would, but hot drinks seem to have a way of warming everything up. Tea is good all the time, but no more than when you’re keeled over with cramps under the pain of your uterus lining being shed. Heat packs and hot water bottles work in the same way to offer some form of relief to pain caused by periods.
Medication: One word: Naprogesic. One of the cult medications that can be found in most women’s bathroom cabinets (if not their handbags). Of course, there are other forms of medication that offer relief from period pain, but Naprogesic is definitely one of the more in-demand. Any medication that inhibits the production of prostaglandins is going to be one of the most highly sought and successful (and scientifically backed) ways of disrupting the pain.
It’s all in the empathy, fellas. Without knowing what is actually going on for a woman during ‘that time of the month’, it can be an overwhelming and intimidating beast for any man. So with your research conducted, your home stocked with Naprogesic and the like, and your kettle ever at the ready, you’re in a better position than ever to navigate the pain around a woman’s period with them. You can’t take away their pain - but you can be a valuable support to them through it.