If you go through menstrual cramps each month, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s that feeling of sitting on the toilet, not knowing if the diarrhea is because of something you ate, because of a baby dinosaur clawing its way out of your uterus, or because of your period.
That feeling of just…sitting there.
For a good 15 minutes. Clenching your jaw, closing your eyes, hugging your stomach, and praying the pain will go away soon. And you’re not alone in this.
Millions of people out there also have period poops.
In fact, up to 95% of those of us who menstruate have been in pain like this, for years.
There are different kinds of menstrual pain, but not many options for it
Medical professionals point out that there are different kinds of period pain — primary dysmenorrhea, or pain that isn’t caused by underlying medical conditions, and secondary dysmenorrhea, which is caused by those conditions, such as endometriosis.
But regardless of the kind of dysmenorrhea we have, when our period starts and we go to the doctor — which we do, in fact, it’s the main reason we go to the OB-GYN — they generally give us two options: either take painkillers and slowly destroy your liver over time, or get rid of your cycle altogether with some kind birth control method.
And while some might be OK with these options, I’ve come to learn that most — the majority — don’t agree with either of these options.
They resent having to take painkillers, so they don’t. Taking birth control makes them feel wonky, so they don’t.
What do they do instead, then, for their pain?
They put up with it.
“Just deal with it”
My entire life I’ve been taught that this is what I need to do as well. That having a menstrual cycle means being in pain each month. It comes with the package of being female-bodied. It’s just… normal. Don’t whine so much, don’t complain so much. Just deal with it, come on. No es para tanto, as they would say in Spanish. Right?
Putting up with period pain— meaning, not treating it nor doing something about it— has long term consequences: biologically, psychologically, socially, you name it. If having pain for days, every month, for decades, isn’t serious enough, research shows that if left unchecked, it actually gets much more serious than that.
The long term consequences of not dealing with your period pain
Cramping pain has a debilitating and damaging effect on our well-being. It can affect relationships, friendships, school and work performance. It interferes with our social and recreational activities. It’s the main reason we miss school and work. It costs us money, time and energy.
But it gets worse.
Research shows that not addressing your period pain and its risk factors has long term consequences. In a study published in 2015, researchers Stella Iacovides, Ingrid Avidon, and Fiona C Baker found beyond the impact menstrual pain has on the menstruators’ quality of life, mood, and sleep, there are other, surprisingly less heard, consequences of untreated, unchecked menstrual pain.
It puts you at risk for other types of chronic pain
For example, they found that women with period pain, compared to those without it, experience changes to their nervous system and develop a greater, long term sensitivity to other kinds of pain. This heightened sensitivity to pain puts women at risk of experiencing other chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia.
Other studies also show that menstrual pain frequently occurs alongside other types of chronic pelvic pain. Women with IBS, for example, are more likely to experience primary dysmenorrhea, compared to women without IBS (period poops, remember?). Dysmenorrhea may also predispose women to a chronic pain state, depression and anxiety.
But wait, there’s more.
It also changes your brain structure
Other researchers have also found that women who experience period pain over time have altered brain structures compared to women who don’t feel menstrual pain.
Another study that came out last year also examined how menstrual pain also worsens sleep quality in teenage girls, which in turn severely impacts their cognitive and learning abilities.
They found that women and teenagers with period pain have lower gray matter volume in areas involved with pain transmission and sensory processing, and larger gray matter volume in regions where pain modulation occurs. All of this also means that women with period pain feel more general pain, and are more sensitive to it.
To explore just how much menstrual pain affects women’s brains, researchers from the Institute of Brain Science at National Yang-Ming University in Taipei took MRI scans of women who were not in pain in that moment but who regularly experience menstrual pain.
What they found was revealing. Lead investigator, Professor Jen-Chuen Hsieh, MD, PhD, stated that their results “demonstrated that abnormal GM [gray matter] changes were present in [primary dysmenorrhea] patients even in absence of pain.”
“This shows that not only sustained pain but also cyclic occurring menstrual pain can result in longer-lasting central changes,” he added.
The problem isn’t having a period
I grew up thinking that having a menstrual cycle is the worst thing ever. I believed that, really.
But as I’ve come to embrace myself and my body, I realize that having a menstrual cycle isn’t the problem. I now love having my cycle — it connects me to my body, my emotions, my surroundings. It heightens my creativity, my affection. It helps me check in with myself.
So the problem isn’t having a period. It’s having a period that hurts. It’s being at a workplace that doesn’t have trash cans in its bathrooms. It’s being shunned, embarrassed, or treated as dirty. It’s being taught to reject my own body for something it does naturally.
The problem is also not having enough options for my pain. It’s not being believed when I go to the doctor and ask for remedies without side-effects. It’s not being heard. It’s not taken seriously.
I don’t want to take painkillers, and I don’t want to take birth control. I want more respectful, effective solutions to my pain.
Advocating for pain-free menstruation
These research study findings call for a shift in the way we interpret period pain. Millions of people who menstruate are affected by a pain that has serious, long-term consequences. It isn’t something minor people go through each month, it isn’t something we should “just put up with.” Putting up with it harms us, literally.
And yet, countless medical professionals and menstruators themselves seem to just ignore, disregard, or normalize the pain be it dysmenorrhea, menstrual cramps or period pain.
It’s time we have more options — options we actually want. It’s time we take our pain seriously, and it’s time we ambitiously advocate for every menstruator’s right to live pain-free. Just because period pain is common, that doesn’t make it OK.