Don’t just “suck it up”
I’m Sarah and I have uterus problems. I have endometriosis, a disease affecting 1 in 10 women/people of reproductive age which means that the tissue that would normally line my uterus decides to grow throughout my abdomen, causing painful lesions and inflammation. I’m also believed to have adenomyosis, meaning my uterine lining (being the independent woman that she is) decides to grow within the walls of my uterus, creating bloody fibroids. It’s not very fun. These conditions cause a number of other implications and unpleasant symptoms, but we’ll get to that.
For 8 years, I was told by doctors that my period pain was normal. I was told, “periods suck, this is just what it’s like to be a woman! Be strong!” as if I wasn’t already being strong and doing my best to “suck it up.” We now know that my normal period cramps were as painful as the average LABOR PAINS. And they told me to JUST DEAL WITH IT.
I showed LOTS of symptoms that my periods aren't normal, but I didn’t know it. All I knew was that birth control wasn’t helping, my doctors weren’t listening, and I was in pain. So, now that I know the ins and outs of menstruation, I’m going to pass my wisdom along to you.
Now, I’m NOT a doctor, and I cannot provide a medical diagnosis. All I can do is tell you what I wish I had told my doctors about sooner. So, based on my experiences, here are some ~period problems~ you should reeeeeally talk to your doctor about.
1. Really heavy periods
I used to have to wear THREE maxi pads to bed at night, and I often would STILL bleed through and ruin my sheets. When I was finally able to wear tampons (we’ll get to that), it helped a little- but they needed to be changed even more frequently. If you’re bleeding through your heavy duty menstrual products fast, and can never have enough maxi pads on hand, that could be a sign of a problem like adenomyosis, and should definitely be looked into. Tampons are expensive- don’t make yourself buy more than you need to!!
2. Irregular periods
Do you never know when your period is gonna come? Will it occasionally skip a month, or come multiple times in one month, or just...disappear for a while and then SUDDENLY COME BACK IN A SEA OF BLOOD FOR THREE MONTHS STRAIGHT? Been there. Any of these symptoms can be signs that your hormones are a hot mess, which can coincide with problems like endo. Both endo and adeno relate to the shedding of your uterine lining going haywire, so any irregularities in this monthly process can be a big red flag.
3. Debilitating periods
If your periods make you skip class, find yourself unable to stand up straight, and/or stay home from social events because of how painful they are, THAT ISN’T NORMAL. I thought it was normal for SO LONG. I tried so hard to make myself believe it was normal that I rarely even let myself skip class or stay home. I pushed myself anyway, and I always suffered for it. Midol was my best friend (even though that only helped with, like, 65% of the pain), and I’ve had a minimum of two heating pads since I was 19 (I now have 5!). Periods suck, and they can hurt, but they shouldn’t interfere with your life, and they shouldn’t be debilitating. You know your body better than anyone else, so complain, complain, and complain some more until they finally listen to you. This is your LIFE and you deserve to live it to the fullest.
4. No change with birth control
If either of the first two symptoms are affecting you, and going on a hormonal birth control regimen isn’t helping, that’s a sign that you may have a deeper issue. Even when I was on regular birth control pills, my period was irregular and extremely heavy. When I got my endometriosis diagnosis and they realized that my estrogen levels were whack, they put me on a stronger hormonal regimen with an IUD and medications that technically put me in “medical menopause” and stopped my periods altogether. While that won’t be the best plan of action for everyone, it’s one example of a stronger treatment method that can be tried on you when all else seems to fail.
5. Pain with sex and/or penetration
This can be awkward to bring up with your doctor, but it’s so important. I wasn’t physically able to put in a tampon until my junior year of college, and even when I FINALLY could do it, it was a painful and uncomfortable experience. And that was just a TAMPON...imagine how penetrative sex felt! When I brought it up to my doctor for the first time, she told me I just needed to “drink some wine before penetration to ‘loosen up.’” Not a great thing to tell a 19-year-old who’s coming to you with a really embarrassing problem. We now know that I have something called vaginismus, which is basically involuntary contraction of the muscles around the vagina, which makes the vagina contract really tightly. It frequently accompanies problems like endo because of the body’s reaction to pain and inflammation, but it’s very possible to have it on its own as well. If you’re in extreme pain ~down there~ even without actual penetration, it could be a sign of a condition like vulvodynia, which is chronic pain surrounding the opening of the vagina. Sure, things like penetrative sex can be uncomfortable the first few times you do it- but it shouldn’t be unbearable, and it shouldn’t happen over and over again!
6. Reeeeeally painful exams
Nobody likes the speculum. Pap smears are nobody’s idea of fun. But, if you DREAD going to the gyno because of the intense pain that awaits you, that’s something to mention to your doctor! There’s a lot that could be going on, from muscle contractions like vaginismus, to chronic inflammation due to something like endometriosis. Or it could be something totally different! It was a huge turning point for me when my doctor realized just how sensitive I was to exams, because it made them believe my claims that something in there just wasn't right.
7. Cramping in between periods
Do you ever feel like you have your period, even when you don’t? Do you kind of always feel like you have your period? Not normal. I get something we endo sufferers call “endo belly” every day where my stomach makes me look months pregnant and feel like I’m going into labor. It’s done this since I was in high school, and I thought everyone had this happen. WTF????? It KILLS me to think that there are people out there feeling like this and just sucking it up. It still hurts, but I can manage it much better now that I have the proper diagnoses and am on the correct medications. Don’t deal with menstrual cramps more often than you need to! It’s not fair!
8. Stomach upset around your period
This is a tricky one, because I can almost guarantee that you’ll be sent to a gastroenterologist, but you need to be persistent. Keep a record of your symptoms and their relation to your menstrual cycle. Do you throw up ONLY when you have your period? Do you get constipated (or the opposite) in the week leading up to your period every single time? Is nausea a “normal” period symptom for you? These are all things to make a note of, because they’re important and can be signs of other things. I have a problem with the bacteria in my small intestine, which is a condition often associated with endo- but I know which symptoms are related to that and which symptoms are related to my unhealthy period. Be very clear about the relationship between these symptoms and your cycle, and hopefully your doctor will listen.
9. Painful bowel movements and/or urination
Another one that can be kinda awk to talk about, but it important to mention. Again, you may be sent to another doctor like a gastroenterologist or a urologist, but telling your gyno first should hopefully help put the puzzle pieces together. Endo can grow in your bowels and on your bladder, and there are other conditions affecting both your bowel and your bladder that could be causing your pain. Even if it ends up being a totally different problem like IBS or interstitial cystitis, it’s always good to make sure your doctors are aware of your concerns.
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