Bloating, breast tenderness, and mood swings are often part of the routine during that time of the month. So it’s no surprise that many of us blame period pain as yet another part of womanhood. When it comes to experiencing severe cramps, however, it turns out that not all menstrual discomfort is healthy. In fact, it could be a symptom of endometriosis.
“Endometriosis occurs when the endometrium, the lining of the uterus, implants in areas outside of the uterus. As the woman’s hormones fluctuate, and as she menstruates, the implants have no way to exit the body”, says Tamer Seckin, MD, FACOG, a New York–based gynecologist and co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America. “The disease is hard to diagnose because it’s still taboo to talk openly about periods”, he says. “But the best way to bring awareness is to talk about it”.
Lena Dunham recently recounted her own painful experience with the chronic condition on Lenny Letter.
“From the first time I got my period, it didn’t feel right,” she writes. “The stomachaches began quickly and were more severe than the mild-irritant cramps seemed to be for the blonde women in pink-hued Midol commercials.”
The importance of raising awareness
Surprisingly, medical school curriculums don’t include endometriosis, says Seckin, His organization is working with universities and legislators to make it a requirement to teach the topic.
“In the meantime, we have to change the mindset of physicians and make them more aware of this disease [and] reach the women who have it or think they might have it, and the doctors who are treating them,” he adds. “Patients are often sidetracked by the wrong diagnosis of a chronic nature, resulting in them going through unnecessary treatments and multiple surgeries. Educating both the public and the medical community leads to early diagnosis and early intervention.”
Read on for four symptoms of endometriosis that you may want to look out for. If any of them sound familiar to you, it may be time to consult your doctor for help.
Some symptoms of endometriosis
“More than half of young girls experience pain with their periods,” explains Seckin. “The vast majority of my patients had exceedingly painful periods beginning with their very first one. Women should look out for ‘killer cramps,’ [which] are debilitating and leave you in bed curled up with a heating pad. Many young women think these cramps are normal especially if their mother suffered with them,” he says. “These are not normal.”
Heavy and long menstrual flow
If you use pads or tampons, it’s usually recommended to change them every three to six hours. However, if you find that you need to freshen up every hour or two during most of your cycle, that’s a sign that your menstrual flow is unusually heavy. And if your period lasts longer than one week, then it might be time to check in with your doctor.
Pain during sex
Experts agree that sex has numerous health benefits. But if getting intimate causes intense physical pain, that could be a red flag that you have endometriosis. If the affected tissue is behind the vagina and the lower uterus, the motions of sex could push and pull on the growths. This could result in pain that can last for up to two days after sex.
Frequent urinary or bowel problems
Endometriosis usually occurs in the pelvic area. So, it can affect bladder functions and bowel movements if there are adhesions or lesions obstructing those organs. This may result in a frequent urge to urinate, painful urination or bowel movements, and diarrhea.
When it comes to treatment, Seckin explains that laparoscopic deep-excision surgery is the most effective way to completely remove all of the inflammatory tissue.
“The surgeon has to be trained to eliminate the disease as well as econstruct organs affected by the disease,” he says. “Birth control pills, intrauterine devices, pain medications, and hormone therapy are helpful in treating symptoms of endometriosis. But they do not treat the disease.”