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The Phenomenon of Dysmenorrhea: Observing Period Pain

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06 Mar 2024

5 Min Read

Esther Ng (Guest Contributor)

IN THIS ARTICLE

The phenomenon of dysmenorrhea isn’t normal! Let’s question the normalisation of period pain to empower all women with answers regarding their menstrual health.

Welcome to being a woman — where cravings, mood swings, and the dreaded menstrual cramps are all part of the package. If you’re someone who’s ever clung onto a heating pad to your abdomen after taking a few painkillers while cursing Mother Nature, you’re not alone. 

 

Menstrual cramps, otherwise known medically as dysmenorrhea, are cramping pains in the lower abdomen that most women feel before and during their periods. For some, they’re just a slight annoyance, but for others, they can be debilitating, disrupting even the simplest of daily tasks.

 

Here’s something many may not know: period pains shouldn’t put a pause on your life. Yet, there’s a myth that intense menstrual cramps are just part of the ‘experience’, leading to many women suffering in silence and potentially missing crucial signs of underlying reproductive issues.

 

This International Women’s Day, let’s break the silence and challenge the normalisation of period pain. It’s time to unravel what dysmenorrhea truly is and empower ourselves with knowledge.

So, what is dysmenorrhea?

Before you treat your period pains, it’s crucial that you understand what’s going on. There are two distinct types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea involves the familiar cramping pain that comes before or during your period, while secondary dysmenorrhea is period pain caused by a reproductive disorder. Secondary dysmenorrhea can develop after years of typical period pain, differing from initial experiences of menstrual discomfort. These disorders, including endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and tumours in the pelvic cavity, can manifest as intensified or prolonged period pain, among other symptoms.


Distinguishing between the two types relies on recognising symptom variations: primary dysmenorrhea will bring about bloating, fatigue, and mood swings (your typical period symptoms), while secondary dysmenorrhea presents as a change in the intensity or duration of period pain, accompanied by irregular, heavy periods and bleeding between cycles. Utilising period tracking apps like the ones built into your phone or downloadable ones (e.g., Flo and Clue) can aid in identifying irregularities and tracking symptoms.

Hands holding smartphone with period calendar app displayed

Dysmenorrhea can affect you both physically and emotionally, which then impacts your quality of life and mental health. The anticipation of monthly pain can instil anxiety, which can hinder relationships, work, and social activities. Adding onto anxiety, the lack of understanding and empathy from others, including healthcare professionals and loved ones, can further develop feelings of frustration and distress, leaving women feeling invalidated and dismissed in their struggles.

Why don’t people seek help?

The normalisation of menstrual pain and a general lack of awareness among healthcare providers often steer people away from seeking help for dysmenorrhea. Many perceive dysmenorrhea as a natural, tolerable, and normal phenomenon, causing individuals to dismiss the debilitating pain — even when it may stem from an underlying medical condition. This then leads to them being dismissed by doctors and going undiagnosed for many years before receiving proper treatment.


Dismissal of period pain is common among women who seek medical help, often due to healthcare professionals’ lack of education or awareness of various reproductive disorders causing such pain, resulting in the undermining of severe symptoms. Historical biases have led to women’s health concerns being minimised and labelled as ‘dramatic’ or stress-related. However, these symptoms may indicate underlying conditions needing early detection for better outcomes. Women’s heightened pain sensitivity and expression are often misinterpreted as an overreaction rather than a reality. Doubts about women’s pain can affect treatment for reproductive health, which is why biases have to be put aside to make way for proper diagnosis.

Let’s break the silence!

So, you’ve made the decision to seek help for dysmenorrhea, but perhaps you’re feeling unsure about where or how to start. Let’s break down the information or treatment you’re looking for!

 

You want to:

  • Figure out if your period pain is due to a condition
  1. You’ve read through the article and realised that what you’ve been experiencing during your period doesn’t seem to align with what may be a ‘normal’ period. If so, go to a clinic specialised in women’s care or find a gynaecologist and ask away! They may do internal examinations to check your womb (uterus) and pelvis, as well as your tummy (abdomen). If you feel uncomfortable with a male doctor carrying out the examination, you can always request a female doctor. Some diagnostic tests will be done to determine if there’s an underlying reproductive disorder.

  • Receive treatment for your condition
  1. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, your healthcare provider will work with you to develop a personalised treatment plan. This can include a combination of medications, such as painkillers, hormonal contraceptives, and others, to manage your symptoms effectively. Additionally, they will offer guidance on lifestyle modifications, such as dietary changes and stress management techniques, to alleviate period pain and improve your quality of life!

  • Find out if a medication will affect you in a certain way
  1. Before starting any medication for menstrual issues, it’s important to have a chat with your pharmacist! Don’t hesitate to ask about potential side effects that might come with it. Remember that everyone’s body reacts differently to different medications, so getting personalised advice from your healthcare professional is key. You might be worried about hormonal changes or acne breakouts, but discussing your concerns can help you find the right solution. Ask about the duration and expected results of your medication — managing expectations is essential!

Male doctor speaking to a female patient while she holds her abdomen

Seeking medical help is an approach that addresses physical discomfort and fosters a sense of validation and empowerment, enabling women to assert control over their well-being and break the silence surrounding dysmenorrhea. Normalising menstrual health discussions in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities cultivate an environment where women feel comfortable seeking assistance and sharing their experiences. Schools should also prioritise education programmes on menstrual health to bridge the gap of understanding and support those coming into womanhood. It’s about time we champion these efforts and empower women to embrace their menstrual health with confidence and the proper knowledge.

Conclusion

The myth ‘a woman must suffer’ should be abolished. We must amplify the message that teenagers and young adults shouldn’t have to have their lives hindered by dysmenorrhea. By supporting organisations dedicated to improving menstrual health and advocating for accommodations in schools, workplaces, and public spaces, we can create environments where women feel empowered to take control of their menstrual health and overall well-being. Together, let’s break the silence, challenge the stigma, and redefine what normal means for women.

Ready to redefine what‘s considered normal in menstrual health? Join our Foundation in Science to challenge the normalised phenomenon of dysmenorrhea and change perceptions for a more equitable future for all women!

Esther Ng Yi Ke pursued a Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Honours) at Taylor’s University before transferring to the University of Bristol. She combines her passion for advocacy with her love for writing to craft impactful narratives that inspire change and promote inclusivity within society.

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