7 Period Symptoms You Should Never Assume Are "Normal"
For many of us, getting our periods is such an across-the-board miserable experience that we have a hard time categorizing any period symptoms as unusual. Spend enough years dealing with horrid-yet-"normal" period symptoms, like cramps that leave you laid up in bed for the day, and you'll start believing that any symptom short of your uterus jumping out of your body and delivering a monologue from Twelfth Night is normal. But "abnormal" period symptoms do exist — and they're signs that your reproductive system is not doing business as usual. They shouldn't be blown off or chalked up to bad luck, and as much as you may want to forget about your period's existence the second its over, you should be bringing up the seven symptoms listed below with your doctor.
Typical unpleasant period symptoms — like cramps and diarrhea — are caused by prostaglandins, a hormone-like compound our bodies use to signal to our uteruses that it's time to slough off its lining. How do uteruses accomplish this feat, when they don't have opposable thumbs or even any kind of basic home improvement materials, like a belt sander? They contract. An overabundance of this contraction-inducing compound can lead your uterus to cramp too strongly, or travel through the bloodstream to neighboring organs with smooth muscles (like the bowels), causing them to contract, as well. Prostaglandins are also why we sometimes feel nauseous during our periods! Ugh. Great job, jerks.
Prostaglandins are the culprits behind most "normal" period unpleasantness. But the issues below signal that something more may be at work than just overproduction of a certain pesky bodily compound. So if any of the symptoms below sound familiar — like "staring down my calendar and feeling increasing dread as my period draws near" familiar — talk to your doctor.
1. Extremely Heavy Bleeding
Obviously, you know your own flow better than anyone else. But know that a "normal" period involves the loss of two or three tablespoons worth of blood in total. But since most of us don't spend our periods with a measuring cup clenched between your thighs, let's discuss this in terms of pads and tampons — if you're soaking through your pads or tampons in under two hours, or using more than five pads or tampons a day, you should talk to a medical professional. The same goes if your period lasts more than seven days. A very heavy flow can be a sign of uterine fibroids, thyroid or hormonal disorders, pelvic inflammatory disease, or sometimes, even cancer — so getting checked out by a doctor is key.
2. Intense Cramping
Again, cramps can often seem like just another terrible fringe benefit of having been born with a uterus. But if you regularly experience cramps so bad that you have to miss work or school, or cramps that don't seem to be relieved at all by over-the-counter painkillers, you may be dealing with something more serious. Extremely painful periods can be a symptom of endometriosis, a disorder where uterine lining grows on other areas of your body besides your uterus, such as your ovaries, fallopian tubes, or even your bowels. Painful cramps are usually just one of several symptoms women with endometriosis endure — they often also experience pain during sex, back or abdominal pain throughout the month, and irregular, non-cycle bleeding — so if your symptoms match up, make a doctor's appointment.
Extremely painful periods aren't exclusively a sign of endometriosis, though — they can also be a sign of uterine fibroids, benign growths inside the uterus that can cause pain and discomfort for the sufferer; or of pelvic inflammatory disease, a disease that can develop from untreated gonorrhea or chlamydia.
The good news is that there's often treatment that can lessen (if not eliminate) your period pain — so don't just try to white-knuckle it through another month.
Much of the time, women spot (extremely light bleeding, often between periods) due to being on a low-dose birth control pill. However, spotting can be a sign of a host of reproductive health problems, including uterine or cervical polyps (which are benign, but may cause bleeding after sex, as well), or, in rare cases, cervical or uterine cancer. Spotting can also be a sign of pregnancy.
So while spotting is likely nothing to be worried about, you should bring it up to your doctor so you can figure out what's up (and possibly try some new birth control pills or methods, so that you can feel protected from both accidental pregnancy and accidentally ruining yet another pair of underpants).
4. Large Blood Clots
The occasional small blood clot on your pad is nothing to get worried about — sometimes, during a particularly heavy flow, the anticoagulants in your body can't keep up with your flow, which leads to small, harmless clots.
However, blood clots bigger than a quarter can be a sign of uterine fibroids, as well as hereditary disorders like von Willebrand disease. They can also be a sign of miscarriage, or that your body is having a difficult time adjusting to your new copper IUD. Either way, you should be talking about large clots — or even a noticeable change in how many small clots you're getting — with your doctor.
5. Severe Lower Back Pain
Many of us experience some lower back aches during our periods — it is, once again, a problem caused by prostaglandins (ugh, can't these losers get another hobby?). Prostaglandins can cause the uterus to contract too forcefully, which cuts off oxygen supply to some surrounding muscles. However, it you deal with incapacitating back pain during your period — as well as abdominal or pelvic pain — it can be a sign of endometriosis. Women with endometriosis may also experience pain in these areas throughout the month. Intense lower back pain during periods can also be a sign of fibroids.
6. Painful Bowel Movements
This is a rarer one, but still serious — if you're experiencing pain while pooping during your period, it can be a sign of endometriosis. Endometriosis can cause painful bowel movements, as well as constipation or frequent diarrhea, when the disease causes uterine lining to grow on the rectum, appendix, or small bowels. This can irritate your bowels and cause serious bathroom pain.
This is one symptom that isn't "normal" at all — and five to 15 percent of women with endometriosis struggle with bowel-related problems from the disease, so if you've experienced this, make sure to seek out a doctor's help ASAP.
7. Any Major Changes In Your Symptoms
Since our periods are so unique — they're like snowflakes! Painful, bloody snowflakes that ruin your jeans and make you spend one day a month swaddled in blankets, watching 20- year-old episodes of The X-Files — the biggest symptom that something is up with your reproductive health (or your health in general) can be a major change of any sort to your period symptoms.
If your periods used to be very short but now they're very long, get it checked out; if your periods used to be very heavy, but now they're suddenly light, get it checked out; if you went your whole life without really having cramps, but now you're in bed with them at least one day a cycle — tell your gynecologist. It might just be a change related to aging or hormonal levels — but it could also be a sign of a major health issue that you're not dealing with it. Worst case scenario, they tell you that you're totally healthy, and your sucky symptoms are just another manifestation of the magic of menstruation.
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