Hormones, mood and even sleep can be affected by your period. Your health and period are so intertwined that it's important to pay attention to your symptoms. But not everyone knows what's normal and what isn't when it comes to period symptoms—so many of us keep our symptoms to ourselves. Or think what we're feeling is normal.
"Maybe you grew up believing that periods are supposed to be painful," says Jennifer Cutilli, MD, OB/GYN at Riddle OB/GYN, part of Main Line Health. "Or you think you're supposed to just push through pain. In reality, there are many ways to manage your period, and you don't have to suffer in silence."
You can learn a lot about your overall health simply by looking at the frequency of your period, its flow and the type of pain you experience.
Here are four period symptoms that could be sending a message about your body's health.
1. The pain knocks you out.
Menstrual pain is common, but it's not normal if it's disrupting your life and stopping you from doing what you love. Life can get busy, and if you have a full schedule, then being curled up in bed isn't an option.
If you're experiencing excruciating pain, you may be suffering from something called dysmenorrhea. Dysmenorrhea is the pain and discomfort you might experience before, during or even after your menstrual cycle.
There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary dysmenorrhea is triggered by menstruation and secondary dysmenorrhea causes pain as well, but it's due to an underlying health condition.
Although the severity and symptoms vary for dysmenorrhea, common symptoms include:
- Lower back pain
- Pelvic pain
- Pain that feels like it's spreading down your legs
Painful periods, pelvic pain and pain during sex could also be signs of endometriosis, uterine fibroids or a sexually transmitted disease (such as gonorrhea). There are many messages that pain during your period is trying to communicate, but you can only do something about it if you listen to them.
2. You're changing sanitary products frequently.
Starting your period is never convenient, but if you're experiencing heavy menstrual bleeding for more than a week, you may have menorrhagia.
Some common symptoms of menorrhagia are:
- Consistently spotting or bleeding
- Changing sanitary products frequently, such as every 2 hours (or more frequently)
- Periods that last more than 7 consecutive days
No one wants to go to the bathroom every hour, or worse, worry about leakage. But if this sounds like you, you're not alone.
"Heavy bleeding is disruptive to your life and could possibly have more serious effects on your health, such as anemia. When a person becomes anemic due to heavy bleeding, they can develop dizziness and feel fatigued," says Dr. Cutilli.
Many people have heavy periods and don't think anything of it. But 1 in 10 may have a bleeding disorder.
3. You notice blood clots larger than the size of quarters.
Before you panic, first know that your period is a mix of tissues and blood. This means that some clumps or blood clots are normal. You shouldn't be alarmed unless the blood clots are larger than the size of a quarter.
If you're noticing big clots as you change your pad or tampon more frequently, this could possibly be a sign of abnormal or heavy bleeding.
4. Your period shows up when it wants.
Cycles vary and irregular periods aren't unusual for women, including those experiencing perimenopause. However, irregular periods can also be a sign of something serious like heart disease and stroke or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
For example, people with irregular periods could be at risk for heart disease and stroke when they haven't had a period for 3 months in a row (called amenorrhea) or are in menopause. This is because your body may have stopped producing estrogen—the hormone acts as protection against heart disease and stroke.
People with irregular periods, along with chin, face and body hairs or hair loss, could have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This is a hormonal imbalance that affects 1 in 10 women in their reproductive years.
What causes irregular periods?
There could be several reasons why your cycle is irregular. Common causes of irregular periods include:
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Eating disorders
- Excessive exercise
Irregular periods should only be a concern when they switch from being normal cycles, like getting your period more than every 24 days. A cycle that comes less than every 38 days is another reason to call your provider.
Heavy periods, irregular bleeding and unbearable pain aren't normal. So if you're experiencing any symptoms that seem like they're going above and beyond to make your life difficult when on your period, it's time to call your healthcare provider.
Make an appointment with Jennifer Cutilli, MD
Learn more about OB/GYN care at Main Line Health
Read about the difference between endometriosis and adenomyosis