Menstrual cramps need no introduction. They are so common. And yet, there is an air of dismissiveness in how our society views and treats menstrual pain. This lead me to look up the statistics regarding period pain that has no other cause such as cramps from endometriosis or PCOS. Menstrual cramping of this type is known as primary dysmenorrhea.
According to a study done in 2017, incidences of primary dysmenorrhea range from 45 to 93% of women of reproductive age. The burden of dysmenorrhea is greater than any other gynecological complaint experienced by women regardless of age, nationality or economic status. (1)
Social and developmental risks are also a factor. Period pain can lead to lost work days, recurring absenteeism in school and also lasting psychological effects. This is especially true for adolescents. “Depression, anxiety, and disruption of social support networks have been associated with menstrual pain.” (2)
Despite the high incidence of menstrual pain, there is an underlying social assumption that period pain is normal and just something women deal with. This mindset fosters powerlessness as if it’s just part of the human condition with no recourse for the individual to take beyond painkillers and birth control.
“Women commented that period pain, in their mind, was just part of ‘being a woman’ and it was something that women had to put up with as an integral part of womanhood;” (3)
Period pain being seen as culturally normal creates a neglected public health crisis. The underlying belief system is one where the individual suffers silently because menstrual pain is socially considered as just a part of life. Women are then less likely to seek treatment for period pain because the dominant narrative is it’s just something you put up with.
“Practitioners also often found that women would not mention painful periods unless they are specifically asked, as period pain was often not considered a health condition or even a symptom worth mentioning.” (3)
Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t stop with how people are conditioned to think. The normalization of period pain is also reflected in the conventional medical response to it. The usual treatments provided by doctors are symptomatic at best. Over the counter medication for pain is common along with NSAIDs, oral birth control and IUDs.
Each of these solutions can improve symptoms and are sometimes necessary if all else has failed. But they do nothing to address why menstrual cramping is occurring in the first place. Also symptomatic relief doesn’t come without a price. Conventional treatments that are not managed well can lead to mood swings, irregular periods, acne, decreased libido and weight gain. (4) There are even potential complications regarding fertility should a woman want to become pregnant later in life.
The intersection of medicine and culture regarding dysmenorrhea creates a bleak outlook for women’s health. Being conditioned to think that period pain is just a part of life that automatically needs pain killers or birth control blocks women from making healthier decisions about their bodies. The dialogue regarding what a healthy period should be like closes before that conversation even has a chance to happen. And like a cultural tradition, the burden is then passed down from one generation to the next:
“because so many of us are never taught very much about what to expect from our periods in the first place, it’s hard to tell when something’s wrong. Menstrual pain is wrapped up in a natural female phenomenon” (5)
Despite how dysmenorrhea is viewed, there are options outside of the current paradigm. Chinese Medicine has a comprehensive approach to menstrual pain. It is a safe first line of defense because the problem is not looked at in isolation.
To find the actual cause of dysmenorrhea, Chinese Medicine takes into consideration how healthy the entire body is. It makes connections between other symptoms you are experiencing that point to what is causing the period pain in the first place.
Chinese Medicine is also a great way to get in touch with how your body works. It provides thousands of years of self care wisdom. Women who get treated with Chinese Medicine tend to gain a better understanding of menstruation and what they can do to have a healthier cycle. It helps women reinterpret what a normal period should be like.
“Women often felt that once they knew what to look for, they could more easily see the impact their choices made on their menstrual symptoms.” (3)
In the next part, we’ll look at some self care tips that can make a big impact on treating menstrual pain. You can also schedule an appointment to see what Chinese Medicine can do for you.