Sometimes we don’t realize when something about our period is abnormal.
And we may need some help!
On Mondays in August we’re talking about periods, and how that affects our view of our bodies, our health, our sex life, and more. Last week on our podcast on periods Rebecca and I were talking about how we need to be more proactive about seeing the doctor if we fear something is wrong–but the problem is that many of us may not realize when something isn’t normal, because we just don’t talk about it. So I thought today I’d help us with some quick tips (but please remember I’m not a doctor!)
Here’s My “Something’s Wrong” Period Story
For me, It all started when my cycles got out of whack.
At first I blamed it on my daughters. You know how when you have a bunch of women living in one house their bodies tend to adjust to each other and your cycles line up? Well, I was living with teens who weren’t quite “regular” yet, so I thought that’s why I was going all wonky. I didn’t think much of it.
Then the wonkiness wasn’t wonkiness as much as it was frequency. I’d always been a 30-31 day kind of gal, like clockwork. Then I went to 28, which disappointed me, but really was nothing to complain about.
21 days, on the other hand, is ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS!!!! And having to sleep on top of a towel, and not go out for more than 2 hours during “that time of the month” in case Niagara Falls hits, was really frustrating.
But it’s not just that life wasn’t fair. It’s that my body decided it’d had enough, and then it decided not to make any more red blood cells, because really, what’s the point? I was losing them too fast anyway. My body figured it may as well kick its feet up and grab a cold one and take the day off.
So my body took a whole bunch of days off, and one day I wake up and I was so TIRED I felt like you do during the first trimester of pregnancy. But I couldn’t figure out the reason, so I pushed ahead, and pushed ahead, and pushed ahead, until one day I came back from a speaking engagement and flying all over the country and I just lost it. I cried uncontrollably because life was just so OVERWHELMING and I couldn’t do it anymore.
(here I am right before that breakdown, at the MOPS convention in 2013. I gave this talk with the worst migraine of my life).
Eventually I decided maybe a visit to the doctor may be in order, and lo and behold, I had major anemia. Yay! I wasn’t going crazy.
So I took iron supplements for a few months, and I was happily contented (though constipated) because soon this would all be over. I went for another checkup, and–WHAM!–I was even more anemic than before.
My doctor was now worried, and sent me for an ultrasound and a specialist, and the specialist says, “Okie dokie. You’ve got fibroids. Let’s book you in for an ablation and you’ll be good as new.”
And so I went in for surgery, and behold–I was actually as good as new.
Better even! My periods were lighter, when they came at all. My iron levels came back up. My mood improved.
And I wondered–why didn’t I get help sooner?
Maybe you have a similar one.
But the big thing I learned was that I lived through a lot of agony for a long time because I didn’t realize that what I was experiencing was abnormal. I knew that women often got worse in their 40s. I knew that people often bled a lot. And so I just assumed I had to put up with it.
As Rebecca and I were talking about on the podcast last week, because we don’t talk to friends about periods that much, we sometimes don’t notice when things aren’t normal.
What is a normal period?
- Last between 2-7 days
- Come between 21-35 days (although if I were on the extremes of either of those numbers I would talk to a physician about it).
- Contain between 2-3 tablespoons of blood (although it seems like a lot more, honestly!).
It’s normal to feel some cramping, especially on the first day, that may require some Advil to touch it.
It’s normal, especially in the teen years, for periods to be irregular or heavier.
And it is normal for periods to get lighter as you age, and to start skipping periods as you enter into your 40s.
Problems with periods are very common–and center around three things: The amount flow; Pain; and Timing.
1. When your flow is heavier or lighter than normal
What constitutes a heavy flow? If you need to double up on pads and tampons (like use both at the same time), and you need to change them every 1-3 hours or you’ll leak, or if you leak at night, that’s abnormal.
And if you notice that your period is heavier than it used to be, that’s a sign that something could be happening. Maybe you used to be able to go to sleep with just a pad, but now you need a pad and a tampon. Or you need a much bigger pad.
Heavy periods could be a sign of:
- uterine fibroids;
- hormonal imbalances;
- some bleeding disorders
- some cancers (don’t worry; that’s rare!)
and lots of other things. And sometimes they don’t have an underlying cause, but even so–bleeding that much can cause anemia (low iron) which does need to be treated.
And what if your flow is very light? That can also be a problem, especially if you are underweight. When we volunteered at a children’s home in Kenya, we learned that many of the girls, after being at the home for a few months, thought they were very ill because their periods suddenly got heavier. When they were living in very poor conditions with little nutrition, their periods were very light. Once they received proper nutrition, their periods got to be normal (which they thought was heavy).
Light periods can also be a sign of a hormonal problem, too, but usually they’re not as serious as heavy periods. And remember–usually periods get lighter with age! If they get heavier (like mine did), then it’s likely a sign that something else is going on.
2. When your periods are very painful
Sometimes pain occurs at ovulation, often caused by ovarian cysts, and sometimes cramping is so bad during your period that you break out in cold sweats, vomit, get migraines, or just feel like you can’t move.
One person left this comment last week:
I finally worked up the courage to see a gynecologist at 20. I had never been, and as an unmarried virgin, from a conservative background, I was mortified. But my periods had always been debilitating, and it was seriously interfering with college. She said “honey, you have cramps. Take some ibuprofen.” So I cried some, and soldiered on.
Several months later, in grad school, my mom convinced me to come home, saying she’d found a doctor for me. I was non functional by then. He took a look at my ultrasound and said “they told you this was normal? Only two things cause this much fluid in a pelvis and abdomen. Ovarian cancer, and advanced endometriosis. They call ovarian cancer the silent killer for a reason, so we have cause to hope it’s endometriosis.” I was in surgery later that week. The endometriosis was everywhere.
My husband and I have four miracle children, but at only 36, I’ve now had a hysterectomy and my fallopian tubes and an ovary removed, because after our last, the debilitating periods and endometriosis returned, this time involving my colon as well.
Women are often told that pain is just normal with periods, and we should just suck it up.
And often we’re told that by physicians, even female ones.
To a certain extent, cramps are normal. Especially in your teens, that first day of a period is often quite uncomfortable.
However, being so in pain that you can’t function, or having migraines or vomiting is not just normal, and may be a sign that something else is going on.
If you talk to your doctor, and they just tell you to take Advil, insist on doing a workup if you think this isn’t normal. Track your cycles for a few months and write down how many pads/tampons you go through; how much pain you have on a scale of 1-10, as well as whether you’re able to get out of bed or function or eat. Make note if Advil even touches the pain. And go to see your doctor armed with evidence that something isn’t right.
Endometriosis is a serious condition that impacts our fertility and so much more. And yet often it’s missed in the early days when something could be done about it, because physicians assume that everyone just has pain. So keep track!
What about pain with tampons or sex?
Okay, this one isn’t related to periods per se, but it often shows up first with periods.
If you find that trying to insert tampons is just so painful you can’t do it, even small ones, it’s worth seeing a doctor. It could be a sign of either a thick hymen which needs to be surgically removed before marriage, or vaginismus, an involuntary clenching of the vaginal muscles, which can usually be resolved with pelvic floor physiotherapy.
If inserting tampons is painful, chances are sex once you’re married will be, too. And it’s good to try to figure out the cause!
3. When the time between periods is too long or too short (or they never end!)
Remember the story in the Bible of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, who touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed?
Well, lots of women can relate to her! Their periods come constantly, or they last a long time. They bleed for 15 days instead of the normal 2-7. Some women go 60 days between periods, but then when they do bleed, it’s for a long time. If you find that you go too long (or too short) between periods, or if your periods are super short or super long, please see a physician.
Remember, too, that if you NEVER get your period, that’s also a problem. It may seem awesome, and you may not want to fuss about it, but it isn’t normal or healthy, and it could be a sign of a hormonal imbalance, or even an eating disorder.
What else can help us regulate our periods?
Our hormones regulate our periods, and our hormones are highly sensitive to our diet, our health, our anxiety level, even our sleep cycles. The more that you can go to sleep and get up at the same time everyday (even on weekends!); limit processed foods and processed sugars; eat whole foods; limit alcohol and caffeine and meats with high levels of hormones; the more that you can help your body regulate itself.
Exercise, too, often reduces cramps and helps us deal with pain! Rebecca found when she started eating better and started exercising and taking Highland Dancing that her periods became much more manageable and much less painful.
It isn’t always, then, that you need medical intervention. Sometimes you can help your body yourself. But I still think talking to a physician when something is off is important, to ensure there’s not a serious underlying condition.
When your periods are not working as they should, it’s a signal from your body that something needs to be attended to.
Maybe you need to actually INCREASE your eating and your nutrition so that your periods become more regular and take on a normal flow. Maybe you need to improve your health habits so that the flow regulates and becomes more manageable. And maybe you need to see a doctor because there is something serious going on.
I wish I had seen a doctor about three years before I finally did, because I could have saved myself a lot of frustration and fatigue. And after the ablation (an operation they do now instead of a hysterectomy which “burns” the inside of your uterus and removes fibroids, so that bleeding is lighter), my life really changed!
I know there’s a lot more wisdom about this collectively on YOUR side of the keyboard than mine, though, so I’m going to stop there and turn us over to the comments, because you all likely have some helpful things to add.
Let’s talk about:
- How you learned that you had an underlying condition that may be dangerous, and what they did about it
- What you did to have physicians take you seriously
- LIfestyle changes you made to make your periods easier and less painful
Or anything else! Let’s help each other.
Our Period Series:
- All about Periods, Going to the Beach, and Teenage Embarrassment
- How Can We Help Boys/Men Be More Sensitive about Girls’ Periods?
- The Period Podcast!
- When Should You Call the Doctor about Your Period?
- What Should You Do About Sex During Your Period? (August 17)
- Why We Love Diva Cups (August 24)
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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