Any woman who routinely experiences painful periods knows how bad it can be. And if you are reading this right now and are getting squeamish about the topic of menstruation—a natural event for half the population on a monthly basis—then it’s time to get over it. Because the extreme pain that many women experience can be crippling—and no one likes to talk about it.
According to American Academy of Family Physicians, dysmenorrhea, which is painful menstruation, interferes with the daily lives of around one in five women. But the subject is so poorly researched that many women are not taken seriously when they confront their doctors about the unbearable pain. In Olivia Goldhill’s article for Quartz, she notes that “John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, tells Quartz that patients have described the cramping pain as ‘almost as bad as having a heart attack.'” This isn’t hyperbole. Meanwhile, many OB/GYNs are taught that recommending ibuprofen should be good enough. Imagine experiencing severe chest pains on par with a heart attack and having someone dismissively hand you an Advil!
Goldhill writes that there are “two main causes of period pain: Primary dysmenorrhea and endometriosis. The former is simply painful periods, with no certain medical explanation, that tends to affect women as soon as they start menstruation. But the distinction between the two conditions is not clear-cut, as many women suffering dysmenorrhea may have undiagnosed endometriosis.” The two conditions are severely under-studied, to the extent that researchers don’t really know why women experience dysmenorrhea, and why some suffer more than others.
Treatment options are limited to ibuprofen, oral contraception, or inserting an IUD. Richard Legro, M.D., of Penn State College of Medicine, found that sildenafil (also known as Viagra) can be used to treat dysmenorrhea. “We published our results in a high-impact OB-GYN journal and we feel we made a major contribution to treatment that everyday practitioners could use,” he said, adding that more research is needed before it can be prescribed for dysmenorrhea. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to obtain funding for such research.
Legro told Quartz that we “live in a country that doesn’t really want to face those disorders because they make us think of sex and abortion and embryos and all those ‘bad’ things.” So perhaps the only way for more research to be funded, and more helpful solutions to be found for the millions of women who suffer in silence every month, is for no one to be silent anymore. We need to start talking loudly about the reality of period pain so that it doesn’t go ignored any longer.