The menstrual cycle is punctuated by monthly bleeding culminating in the uterine lining being shed through the vagina. Period symptoms can range from mild to severe. Having a basic knowledge about what occurs during a period can help you deal with a multitude of unpleasant symptoms.
Common Period Symptoms
The period is a woman's monthly bleeding cycle and is the body's way of shedding the uterine lining if pregnancy doesn't occur. Normal menstruation occurs monthly and lasts on average 3-7 days. Unpleasant symptoms generally accompany the vaginal bleeding associated with a menstrual period. The following list explains common symptoms.
- Abdominal Cramps. Lower abdominal cramps are common and can be intense. The uterus is a large muscular organ and the process of shedding the uterine lining can result in dull pain or more sharp, intense and cramping pain. Some women are debilitated during the menses due to the severity of symptoms.
- Breast Tenderness. The hormonal fluctuations result in breast swelling and tenderness. The breast tissue is highly sensitive to hormone levels and soreness is not uncommon.
- Mood Swings. As the hormone levels surge prior to the period, many women experience mood changes including irritability, anxiety, anger and even crying episodes.
- Acne. Teens and young women are prone to acne breakouts due to the rise and fall of hormones during the menstrual cycle.
- Pain. A variety of pain syndromes are related to the menstrual cycle. Muscle pain and backaches are common. Some experience more frequent migraine headaches during their period.
- Food Cravings. Craving to a variety of foods can occur during the premenstrual and menstrual phase. Some crave sweets and high calorie foods, while others crave salty foods and snacks.
- Other Period Symptoms include excessive fatigue and lack of drive to accomplish even normal daily tasks. Some women with underlying psychiatric disorders experience an increase in symptoms during their menses.
- Pelvic Pressure. This occurs due to the fullness of the uterus and also engorgement of the pelvic veins is believed to contribute to this sensation.
- Water Retention. Hormonal shifts results in bloating and water retention. It is common to note swelling of the fingers and ankles.
- Backache. The low back can feel achy and tired during menses. Muscle aches in general are also reported.
- Headache and Fatigue. Migraines and other headache types frequently flare during migraines. Fatigue and malaise accompany premenstrual and menstrual periods.
- Difficulty Concentrating. Cognitive disruption is common. Mood swings and difficulty focusing on tasks is part of the symptom complex associate with the menstrual cycle.
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
PMS is a constellation of unpleasant symptoms and can vary in severity from person to person.
Hormonal fluctuations are the main force in causing PMS symptoms. Diet and lifestyle also play a role. Obese women may be prone to more hormonal issues than younger healthy counterparts.
- Physical symptoms. The physical symptoms that occur in the premenstrual time just before the onset of the menses can be very similar to those that occur during actual menstruation. It is reported that 75% of women experience physical symptoms such as breast tenderness, fatigue, abdominal and pelvic cramping, back pain and muscle aches. These symptoms tend to reach their peak during the 20-30's and then taper off with age. The physical symptoms tend to be predicable from month-to-month.
- Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms. Depression, irritability, fatigue and poor concentration are common symptoms. A more severe form called premenstrual dysphoric disorder causes debilitation symptoms every month. Anger, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness are notable with this disorder. Some women will have a coexisting psychiatric disorder and seeking professional help is warranted.
A variety of options exist to treat the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. A combined approach of seeking medical advice, diet and lifestyle modifications can help manage symptoms effectively.
Medical treatments focus on addressing both physical and psychologic symptoms. Success varies from person to person and adjustment or trying a different class of medication can be beneficial.
Antidepressants are effective in improving mood, reducing fatigue and food cravings and restoring normal sleep. Medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) are first line choices for treating premenstrual syndrome.
Oral contraceptives work by stopping ovulation and influencing hormone levels. This may help stabilize hormonal fluctuations and provide symptom relief. Depo-Provera is an injectable form of birth control and stops ovulation. Non-steroidal medications such as ibuprofen, Aleve and naproxen can provide effective pain relief. Most experts recommend starting NSAID therapy at the start of the period to ease cramping, back pain and breast pain.
Lifestyle modifications are a beneficial component of management of PMS symptoms. Changing diet, sleep and exercise patterns can have a positive impact.
Try eating smaller more frequent meals to avoid bloating and don't overeat. High salt foods contribute to swelling and should be avoided. Add a daily multivitamin and eat a diet high in natural foods such as fruits and vegetables. Excessive caffeine and alcohol can also worsen premenstrual symptoms. Exercise is important for overall health and longevity, but also provides relief of stress. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 5 days a week. Exercise releases natural endorphins and elevates your mood. Ensure proper sleep and take time to relax during the day. Yoga, massage and stretching exercises are beneficial for stress relief.
Supplements such as calcium, magnesium and vitamins B6 and E may ease PMS symptoms. Obtaining vitamins and minerals from natural foods are the best source, but consider adding supplements as an adjunct to ease PMS symptoms.
When to See a Doctor
Menstruation can start as early as 10 or 11 years of age. If menses start before that or have not occurred by age 16, a medical evaluation by a physician is required. Heavy and prolonged bleeding, severe pain, fever or bleeding between periods should prompt a medical evaluation. Tampons and feminine products can be associated with bacterial infections and if feeling sick after using these products, seek medical care immediately. Periods normally resume around 6 weeks after delivering a baby. If you have not had a period yet, seek evaluation. If no period for more than one month, seek evaluation from your doctor to assess if pregnant or experiencing other hormonal abnormality.