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The Injustice of Period Pain

Some people might bristle at this, but I would consider myself a feminist: I was raised by a strong woman who entered the workforce when that was not the norm; who showed me that women were capable of anything that men were; a woman who campaigned tirelessly against the injustice that kept men and women off the same playing field.

That is why I always feel a sense of sympathy for women who suffer from period pain. It seems like an injustice that is biologically enforced, and no matter how noble our strivings, we will never be able to fully erase. That is why I am fairly trigger happy in recommending Naprogesic to my clients who suffer from period pain. Here I will attempt to explain a few issues around period pain so that you can be informed as possible. A quick caveat: as a male, this will be purely intellectual for me, rather than a known and felt experience. I hope this does not come across as a mainsplaned explanation of a female experience.

The technical term is dysmenorrhoea, and recent studies involving Australian school students have shown that it affects 93% of young women. This remains woefully under recognised in wider society. Let’s change that, by giving it some air time. It is time to kick this taboo to the curb. Periods cause pain because they produce natural compounds called prostaglandins. These compounds cause the womb to shed the lining which would no longer support a fertilised egg. The womb contracts to shed this lining and this where women start to experience the cramps which make menstruation such a painful process.

The pain you experience can vary in individuals, but it might involve any of the following:

  • Cramps in your abdomen
  • A more pronounced sense of hunger
  • Feeling puffy or bloated around your abdominal
  • Headaches
  • Your hands and feet might swell
  • Muscular and joint pain
  • Weight gain
  • Tender breasts
  • Breakouts of acne
  • Fatigue

Cruelly, periods also take a mental toll. Again, these symptoms can vary between individuals, but they might include:

  • Mood swings
  • Feeling depressed, tense or uncomfortable
  • Crying
  • Feeling anti-social
  • Issues with concentration
  • Insomnia
  • Alteration of sexual appetite

There are two kinds of period pain. Firstly, there is primary dysmenorrhea, which starts very early on in a woman’s menstrual cycle, and it usually follows a predictable pattern. The pain is usually found in the lower part of the abdomen, and kicks in just as the period begins. It usually lasts for about 24 to 72 hours, and reaches its most painful phase in the middle third. Currently, there is no condition or cause from this pain, nor is there any indication as to why some women battle with this worse than others.

Then there is secondary dysmenorrhea. This is usually characterised by a significant increase in pain caused by an underlying reproductive disorder, such as;

  • Endometriosis: This is an incredibly painful condition which causes long term suffering. Sadly, I have many clients who feel as though this condition is largely unspoken or taboo. As always, a conversation goes a long way to counter this. Endometriosis occurs when cells that line the uterus show up in other organs in the body, so the painful cramps which are usually localised end up being felt across the body.
  • Adenomyosis: Similarly, the cells that line the uterus also grow on the internal muscle wall of the uterus. The painful cramps extend to your whole lower abdomen. From all accounts, it is excruciatingly painful.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease: This happens when an infection moves its way up from the vagina and into the reproductive system. It is typically caused by an STI, like gonorrhoea or chlamydia and it amplifies the pain of periods for the duration of the infection.
  • Fibroids: This is when non cancerous growths of muscle tissue begin to grow along the wall of the uterus, and so the body needs to work harder to shed the lining. The muscle cramps become more pronounced to deal with this unexpected obstacle.

What are my options?

There are plenty of things you can do to alleviate period pain.

  1. Diet – Strange as it sounds, you can alleviate some (not all) symptoms of dysmenorrhea by watching what you are eating. Specific vitamins and herbs can go some way to taking the edge of the pain, namely vitamin B1, fenugreek, valerian, ginger, zataria, fish oil and zinc sulphate
  2. Exercise – it helps get blood flowing through your body to reduce the severity of the contractions and cramps
  3. Taking a hot bath – This relaxes the muscles of the uterus, increasing blood flow and eases the pain
  4. Hot water bottle on the abdomen – This works for similar reasons to the bath, but is slightly more practical if you find yourself in a situation where hopping into a bath might raise eyebrows.
  5. Naproxen – As I mentioned earlier, I am fairly quick to recommend Naproxen to my clients for a number of reasons. Firstly, unlike Ibuprofen, Naproxen is purpose built for dealing with period pain because it is absorbed more quickly and is targeted to the abdomen. It is a non steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that blocks the enzyme which produces prostaglandins (those compounds which cause the painful contractions during menstruation). 
  6. Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation machine – Ok, this is slightly niche, but if you can get your hands on a TENS machine, it works miracles for some women. The premise is simple. The machine emits mild electric currents through small adhesive pads which you can fix to your stomach. These currents stimulate your nerves and reduce the amount of pain you are feeling in that localised area.

So, while we might never be able to fully get rid of the pain that comes to some women once a month, there are a number of options which can help us to significantly reduce the pain. And again, I find myself in admiration of my brilliant female colleagues and family members who might be battling with severe pain at any moment but still go about their day kicking butt.

My hat goes off to you. I would certainly be at home curled in a ball.

Floyd