Health

When is your period not normal?

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Woman stomach pain, menstrual pain, period

Image: Irina Bg/Shutterstock

Usually we’re told that periods are uncomfortable and inconvenient, if not downright painful. We’re told that painful experiences related to being a woman – painful sex, painful periods, painful childbirth, etc. – are par for the course. It’s assumed that to be female is to be burdened by your body. In fact, some celebrate when it’s acknowledged, like articles praising companies providing “paid period leave.”

My personal experience with periods is that I’m a little sleepy and hungry and less tolerant of bullshit; I get a smattering of zits and some GI unrest; but overall they’ve been fine. My sister hilariously calls me “sanguine” during my period, and a friend once rolled her eyes saying that I’m “so lucky.”

I am lucky in many ways, but my periods are normal. My friend later found out that she has endometriosis, a condition that can cause debilitating period pain. I wonder how long she thought feeling that horrible was normal, especially since women can go over a decade before being diagnosed.

Part of this has to do with the medical community’s tendency to downplay women’s physical pain, assuming that it’s more emotional or psychological. This is especially true of pain pertaining to periods; after all, they’re supposed to hurt, right?

Many women may experience period pain, but that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be like that. Endometriosis affects around one in ten women, but the severity of the condition varies.

If you have endometriosis, you’re developing tissue similar to the uterine lining outside of the uterus. The lesions can attach to other organs in your abdominal cavity and respond to hormonal fluctuations just like the lining inside the uterus. This means that they will break down to “shed” but have nowhere to go. They’re stuck inside you. The endometriosis lesions can scar, fuse, or distort you internal anatomy.

It’s a goddamn nightmare, and many women go years being told that they’re just fine.

Symptoms can include pelvic pain during menstruation and intercourse, heavy or irregular bleeding, and infertility. The tricky thing with self-diagnosis is that how do you know how much pain is unusual? How heavily do you have to bleed before it’s a medical problem? How many people know they’re infertile before trying to have kids?

After a certain point, you need to trust your gut and the pain signals your body is giving you. If you think something is wrong, you’re probably right.

Now, there’s no cure, but there are ways to treat symptoms. Hormonal treatments (including birth control), pregnancy, and surgery to remove lesions can lessen the symptoms of endometriosis. It helps to find a doctor who listens to you and is experienced in treating endometriosis. Unfortunately, we’re not sure what causes endometriosis, but you’re more likely to have it if someone in your family does.

Endometriosis isn’t the only issue women can have with menstruation. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is another very common condition that can take a while to diagnose. Even if you don’t have endometriosis or PCOS, lots of pain, heavy bleeding, your period stopping all together, or intense mood swings might be a sign that something is wrong. You may need to push the point and provide concrete data to doctors like how often you need to change a pad or tampon, how much pain medicine it takes you to get through the day (if at all), or how your period used to be compared to now. You deserve to be heard and have your pain taken seriously.

Crystal is a questioner of many things and a writer of essays and fiction. She loves ballet and opera almost as much as football.