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Painful periods aren't normal — what 1 doctor wants people to know

So many grew up thinking that periods were painful and icky. But too much pain during periods is abnormal and could indicate another condition.
/ Source: TODAY

For some, periods feel so awful that they expect to spend their days doubled over in pain, taking ibuprofen in the hopes of some relief. Pain almost seems synonymous with periods, which is why some were stunned when Dr. Jennifer Lincoln noted that painful periods are abnormal on TikTok.

“When we have that one class or that one conversation that periods can be crampy and uncomfortable, what is left out of that is … what is considered too much cramping or too much discomfort,” Lincoln, an obstetrical hospitalist in Portland, told TODAY. “We were never educated on the other part of what to do if it is too much or how do you know what is too much.”

Even though she knew that few truly received a thorough education about menstruation, Lincoln felt shocked by how many people had accepted life with painful periods.

“I didn’t realize how widespread that lack of knowledge was about, ‘Oh my gosh, you mean I’m not supposed to be dying every month?’ That conversation never seemed to happen,” she said. “There’s a degree of discomfort that’s abnormal.”

When it comes to periods, birth control, pregnancy, even pubic hair, so many have learned incorrect information — or heard nothing at all about it. That’s one reason why Lincoln shares on social media and wrote the book, “Let’s Talk about Down There: An OB-GYN Answers all Your Burning Questions … without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking,” which will be published September 14. She wants to provide people with real information about their uterus, periods and other health issues.

Is your period pain abnormal?

Take painful periods. When people believe that is the norm, they’re less likely to seek help from their doctor. But pain during menstruation or sex can be a sign of a condition that requires treatment. Sure, periods include some discomfort but if that becomes too overwhelming, it’s time to tell a doctor.

“Yes, cramping can happen, you might feel a little rundown, you might feel a little crappy. But if that’s what’s taking the front seat of your brain the entire day and making you unable to do other things then that is too much and we need to know,” she said. “If pain is at all impacting your ability to go to school or go to work or it is causing you to not be able to do your normal activities, doctors should know about that.”

People experience painful periods, also called dysmenorrhea, for a few reasons. Primary dysmenorrhea, which often occurs during the first few years of menstruation, can improve on its own. But secondary dysmenorrhea often has underlying cause and uncovering that can take extra examinations and testing. Conditions that can cause painful periods include endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids, polyps and cervical stenosis.

“If we know that (a condition) is there we can remove or fix it and treat it and make it better,” she said. “You don’t need to be suffering.”

Looking forward: More research, more conversation

Dismissing women’s pain means they live with conditions longer without proper treatment and has a real impact on their wellbeing and overall health.

“We know from studies that women and people with uteruses, their pain is under-treated and there’s a delay in treatment. When their pain is finally recognized, they’re more likely to be given psychiatric medication and treatment as opposed to pain medication,” Lincoln said. “I believe that because it is a female-based problem that it has been poo-pooed and ignored and we are just supposed to ‘deal with it.'”

Lincoln wants to empower people to speak up about their health and give them accurate information. But she also hopes that medicine devotes more attention to conditions impacting people with uteruses.

“For so long, women were excluded from studies because our pesky menstrual cycles might mess up the studies. So they just decided to ignore us completely, which is not OK,” she said. “It’s important as we move forward, when it comes to funding research, that we put money into looking into issues that affect people with a uterus, like endometriosis, adenomyosis, vaginismus and vulvodynia. These are not rare issues and people deserve to be treated.”