Every woman remembers the day they got their first period. There’s such a hype to it, you don’t want to be the first in your friendship group, yet you definitely don’t want to be the last. There’s something so bitter sweet about the moment you find out you are now part of the club, your childhood is left behind forever and you are finally a woman. It’s exciting and sad all at the same time. I don’t remember the exact date I got my first period, but I remember the day as if it were yesterday, despite it being over twenty years ago, and despite me having my monthly friend join me every single month since, apart from those months I was pregnant and a few years while I used a contraceptive implant. Getting your first period, I think for the majority of women, is a scary and daunting process, but for more than 1 in 5 of us, it’s even more so. It’s the start of a long and complicated journey with pain, shame and a problem that is seen as insignificant and something we should just be getting on with. Heavy periods affect more than 1 in 5 women, and I am one of those women. Affected since my very first menstrual period back in the late 1990s.
I don’t share my first period story very often, as it was a shameful event for me at the time: I ended up in hospital. It began with me being off school due to an unrelated illness, I remember quite clearly going to see the GP and sitting outside the pharmacy afterwards waiting for the antibiotics he had prescribed when the pain first hit me. I’d never experienced pain like it before and it took over my whole abdomen as if someone had their hands inside of me and were kneading my uterus like a baker kneads a lump of dough. Of course, at the time I had no concept of what this pain was, but can now accurately describe it as the same pain you get when you are around 4cm or more dilated and contracting constantly without a break. A few hours after the pain initially started I ended up on the bathroom floor, in such excruciating pain that I was sweating, convulsing and my Mum rushed me to the local infirmary where the doctor thought I was either about to give birth or more likely, had appendicitis. We were rushed to A&E where I was prodded, poked and weighed. I felt the pain subside a little and I meekly asked if I could pop to the toilet; upon wiping I discovered what the issue actually was: it was my turn to start my period.
I’m sure you can understand why I don’t often share this story with people. After all, thousands of girls start their periods every day and none of them end up in hospital complaining of such pain. How weak must I have been to end up in A&E with just a simple bit of period pain? The truth was, this pain was about to become part of my everyday life. Every month, for seven to nine days, I would bleed heavily and with it came the most intense cramps, migraine headaches and fear that I was going to leak through my underwear and tights. White clothes for me were an absolute no-no. I had to cart around with me a huge stash of sanitary towels so I could replace my pads as regularly as every hour. The pain used to wake me up in the middle of the night, and my parents who had to listen to me wail before getting up and scrambling to get me some pain relief to at the very least minimise the pain to a bearable level.
I battled on for a couple of years, but my exams were coming up and I couldn’t afford to risk having a period in the middle of my GCSEs as full days would become a write off. Paracetamol didn’t touch the sides when it came to the pain and I relied on a combination of paracetamol and ibuprofen. I would often be berated by teachers in front of my peers for daring to turn up to school in the afternoons. “And where were you this morning?!” they would holler, not even contemplating that I was trying my hardest by actually trying to turn up in the afternoons. I was once even taken into a small office with a male member of staff while he screamed in my face about how important Year 11 was and how dare I not turn up for his class that morning. I was found weeping a few minutes later by a female member of staff who gave the uneducated man quite the talking to.
My GP was helpful and prescribed me the oral contraceptive pill, but when the migraines started becoming part and parcel of my monthly friend arriving, I had to be taken off them. She decided that the injection may be a good move for me and referred me to the local family planning clinic.
My GCSEs were weeks away when I was referred to the family planning clinic in the next town along to me. When I sat down with the nurse at the clinic, she asked me how long I’d been with my boyfriend for. I told her that getting the injection was not about me having sex, but to help control my periods as the pain each month was unmanageable, we were hoping that the injection would in fact stop my periods and give me some relief. She was aghast. She refused point blank to administer the injection without a doctor present and said she would only give it for contraceptive purposes. I wasn’t the most confident of girls and my Mum was not well at the time so had been unable to come with me. I walked back out of the clinic, my Dad drove us home and when my Mum heard what had gone on went up the wall, and rightly so! I had no intention of going back to that clinic and struggled on for the next couple of years.
At 18, I decided to get a contraceptive implant which was one of the best decisions I ever made. For a lot of women, the implant can make things worse, for some things stay the same and for others it stops your periods completely. I was one of the lucky ones whose periods stopped completely for just over two years. It was bliss. No more worries of leaking through tampons and pads, no more pain every month that had me bed bound, but the migraines strangely remained. Every 31 days when my period would have been due, the flashing lights would start and the pain would slowly creep over my skull until I could no longer see and the only relief would be a darkened room. I was happy to take it though, at least I didn’t have the contraction style pain that I’d had for years on end, waking me up in the night and making me cry for hours on end without relief.
I came off the implant in 2015 as my husband and I decided we wanted to start to try for a baby and of course, along with my monthly period, returned the pain. My husband had only seen the odd few months where I’d randomly had a period, so had no idea what it was like to have this pain month in, month out. In the July before we conceived Dexter, I had to leave work as the pain was affecting me that much. I just couldn’t think straight with the constant contractions in my uterus. In the August, we were in France staying in a beautiful chateau in Chambery when I was awoken with the pain at 6am. I couldn’t breathe and the only relief was alternating sitting on the toilet and pushing out blood clots and sitting in a warm bath. France is a little different to the UK as you cannot just pick up a pack of 16p paracetamol at your local supermarket, you have to wait until 10am for the pharmacy to open and then explain your reasons why you want pain relief to the chemist. All very, very embarrassing.
Luckily, at the end of August we conceived Dexter and for the next nine months I lived without my monthly pains and I only had three migraines. It was amazing. The day I went into labour, I spent sixteen hours at home labouring to 8cm without so much as a paracetamol, convinced that I couldn’t be anywhere near ready to give birth because the pain I was experiencing was so similar to my monthly period pain. How messed up is that? When we did finally get to hospital, the midwives were so proud of me for doing so much at home without much pain relief and I just felt like saying, I’ve been doing this every month for years. At least with contractions you get a little break in between each one and you get a baby at the end!
So, why am I taking about this today? Well, I want women of all ages to know that heavy periods are not normal and are in fact a treatable medical condition. Why should almost 3.5 million women suffer every month with extreme tiredness, lack of confidence, anxiety, depression and anaemia when there are lots of options available for women, if only the stigma attached wasn’t there and we had more confidence to speak to our GPs. Perhaps you don’t even realise you suffer with heavy periods and think what you experience each month is normal.
What is classed as a heavy period?
Do you bleed for more than seven days in a row? Is the bleeding so heavy, you have to change your tampon or pad every hour or more? Does the heavy flow stop you from doing normal activities? Do you have constant pain like I do in the lower part of your stomach? If you said yes to any of these, you are one of the more than 1 in 5 women who suffer with heavy periods. Don’t suffer in silence, read this guide on Talking Heavy Periods and make an appointment to speak to your GP.
What are the causes of heavy periods?
There are many, many causes of heavy periods including, but not limited to, fibroids, which are non cancerous growths in the womb; endometriosis, when small pieces of the womb lining are found outside the womb; polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common condition which affects how the ovaries work; pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection in the upper genital tract; adenomyosis, when tissue from the womb lining becomes embedded in the womb; an underactive thyroid gland; cervical polyps; blood clotting disorders and cancer of the womb.
How can heavy periods be treated?
Firstly, you need a frank discussion with your GP, explaining how heavy your periods are and how much they affect your life. They will then be able to discuss your options with you which may depend on what causes your heavy periods. Options include having an intrauterine system (IUS) e.g. the coil, fitted which prevents the lining of the womb growing and also acts as a contraceptive; taking medication such as tranexamic acid, Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or oral contraceptives; endometrial ablation which removes the lining of the womb; a myomectomy to remove fibroids or a hysterectomy which removes your womb completely.
As women, why should we feel we have to miss out on social events because we are scared of leaking through our clothes; give up a sport or hobby that we love or bear the financial impact that heavy periods have on us by having to buy more sanitary protection or by taking more unpaid days off work. Most of us feel too embarrassed to even tell our employers why we have to take the day off, blaming instead migraines or childcare issues, which only adds to the misconception that every woman has normal periods and those who do speak out are just making a fuss.
If you do suffer with heavy periods, help me by talking about your experiences below. The more we talk about it, the less of a taboo the subject becomes and the more awareness we can build around the issue. Be sure to visit the Wear White Again website where you’ll find lots of resources on heavy periods including a diary and advice for you to take on board before your GP appointment. Together, let’s break down the stigma of this topic!