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Painful Periods

Up to 15% of women will miss out on work or school due to the severity of pain associated with their period.

Written by: Dr. Mary Powell

The average women will have approximately 450 periods from when she starts in her teenage years until menopause. The roughly equals 3500 days or 10 years! Most women will experience some degree of painful cramping during their periods. Thankfully, most of us are still able to function during these times. However, up to 15% of women will miss out on work or school due to the severity of pain associated with their period. It is estimated that there is approximately $2 billion lost annually in the United States due to missed work or reduced productivity due to menstrual cramps and associated symptoms. Painful periods, also known as dysmenorrhea, is broken down into two main categories: primary or secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea is pain with menstruation when no underlying cause is found. While secondary dysmenorrhea is pain during a period from an associated condition (such as endometriosis, fibroids, or infections).

I am going to focus this blog entry on Primary Dysmenorrhea. This type of painful periods usually starts within the first two years of the onset of menstruation, or in the adolescent years. There is good news! There are some very reliable treatments to counteract these painful periods and help women of all ages keep living their best life throughout the entire month (and the entire 10 years you spend menstruating!).

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) can be very effective. These include the common over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen. These medications help reduce prostaglandins, which are chemicals our bodies produce that cause the painful uterine contractions (cramps). These same chemicals can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and bloating during that time of the month. The dosage and timing of when a woman takes NSAIDs is important to make them most effective. Women do not always report their symptoms to their health care provider, but if they do, we can help give specific treatment suggestions. Hormonal medications, such as birth control pills, the contraceptive patch, contraceptive ring, or progesterone implants or intrauterine devices, have also been found to be extremely helpful in decreasing period pain and associated symptoms.

As a physician, I realize I am quick to recommend medications when there is clear evidence indicating that the meds are highly effective for the condition I am treating. However, I realize not everyone wants to start with medication to treat their periods. We are learning more and more about the importance of non-medication treatments that can be critical to treating various conditions. This is true with painful periods too! Exercise is something we all know to be part of a healthy lifestyle and it has shown benefit to reducing pain during your period. This includes aerobic activities, stretching exercises, and yoga. Heat therapy can be soothing for those cramps and there are even some devices which you can wear under your clothes that will provide heat for up to eight hours at a time. There are some interesting studies that show taking extra vitamin E, magnesium, and/or Ginger supplementation may be useful as well. If you have pain with your periods, discuss your symptoms with an Evergreen Women’s Health Clinician so we can help figure out what is going on and most importantly, help you feel better!


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