Painful Periods: Millions of Women Suffer Physical and Emotional Effects

Endometriosis Awareness Month draws attention to menstrual maladies

Denver (March 15, 2013) — Ever since she was 12 years old, Laura Martinez has been racked with pain when she has her period. Her 12-year-old girlfriends didn’t believe her, nor did her employers later in life when she told them she was in too much pain to work.

“It took a toll on me,” said 46-year-old Martinez, who still deals with the pain of endometriosis, a severe form of menstrual discomfort and the leading cause of infertility worldwide. “The pain was horrible, a pulling sensation—like all my female organs were going to fall out.”

“Female problems,” often the butt of jokes, are nothing to laugh about—particularly for women like Martinez and the estimated 6.3 million American women and girls who have endometriosis. Martinez is doing much better since she had a hysterectomy. But even now she still experiences pain.

“People don’t realize how debilitating it can be for women suffering from endometriosis,” said Dr. Jaime Arruda, University of Colorado Obstetrics and Gynecology physician and assistant professor. “There’s a stigma attached to painful periods or female problems, and there are a lot of people around those with endometriosis who are not very forgiving of their suffering.”

Typically a disease of younger women between the reproductive ages of 15-45, endometriosis pain can begin early on. The pain gets progressively worse, causing most women with endometriosis to seek help in their 20s and 30s.

Endometriosis occurs when tissue from the lining of the uterus, also called the endometrium, spreads to the abdomen and pelvis. The leading theory for why this happens is that at menstruation, blood backs up through the fallopian tubes and into the abdomen and pelvis, said Arruda. When the menstrual cycle returns, this tissue that has attached to the ovaries, bowels, the peritoneum membrane and other areas causes pain, cysts and scarring.

The disease proliferates in the pelvic area, and can even travel to distant sites like the lung and brain. But endometriosis is benign and can be treated. Thought to be estrogen-based or estrogen-fueled, endometriosis is most often treated with birth control pills, which suppress the ovaries from producing estrogen. The disease is notorious for scarring, and fertility can be affected when this occurs on the fallopian tubes. Laparoscopy can mitigate scarring, but without hormone treatment, endometriosis will return.

In addition to endometriosis, more than half of all women experience painful periods due to dysmenorrhea, which has many causes, such as fibroids and abnormalities in the uterus and its lining. Arruda said that painful periods are one of the most common reasons women see a gynecologist, and it is essential to identify the problem in order to rule out other serious possibilities such as infection, sexually transmitted disease or a mass in the uterus or ovaries.

About University of Colorado OB-GYN & Family Planning

University of Colorado OB-GYN & Family Planning is one of the most diversified OB-GYN practices in the Denver area. Notable services at our women’s health clinics include university hospital care with a private practice model, women’s health research & studies, contraception, pregnancy care, infertility treatment, VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean), & menopause treatment.