Menstrual Cramps As Painful As A Heart Attack? This Cannot, And Must Not, Be Ignored.

Oct 18, 2017
9 min read

Period pain got you down? The menstrual cycle is a regular part of life as a female, but the pain that can come from it is anything but regular. Society is often quick to devalue the debilitating pain associated with dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps). You have a right to deal with your pain. Whether you need a medical certificate or anything else to ease your suffering, you deserve support. This blog post breaks down cramps, the stigma around it, and what can be done about both.

It was just another day in my senior year of high school. I was on my period – no big deal, it happens every month – but the cramps that go along with it varied in intensity depending on the month. This particular day, I was in pain but it didn’t seem too bad. Then lunchtime rolled around, and suddenly I was hit by the pain. I felt faint, and the edges of my vision were getting dark.

*It was too painful to open my eyes, so I buried my head in my arms and hoped it would go away. I stayed there for probably twenty minutes before I was finally able to muster the energy to sit upright, stand****, and make my way to the nurse’s office while two of my friends physically supported my weight.*** menstrual cramps and period pain I ended up spending the next two hours asleep in the nurse’s office and missing my classes that afternoon, before I called my mother to come pick me up from school and take me home to rest.

This is just one example of one of my most painful experiences with period pain. I am fortunate to have only experienced this degree of extreme pain associated with my period a couple of other times in my life, but this may not be the case for other people who menstruate.

What are cramps and why do they happen?

During menstruation, hormone-like substances called prostaglandins are released to cause the uterus to contract in order to expel its lining. Prostaglandins are involved in inflammation and pain, and higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with higher levels of pain. It's important to realize that people experience menstruation differently. So when to see a doctor for your pain depends on you! To get started, you can contact a doctor online here.

Some symptoms of cramps include:

  • throbbing pain in the lower abdomen
  • a constant ache
  • pain that spreads to the lower back and legs
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • bloating
  • headaches
  • dizziness

Why is stigma a problem?

Despite the fact that periods are a biological phenomenon that can leave individuals in regular, severe pain, the pain associated with menstrual cramps is often met with cynicism and devalued (this is also the case with mental health issues).

While not all individuals who menstruate may identify as women, periods are still treated as a very feminine experience. The 2001 study The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain found that after diagnosis, women were given less aggressive treatment than men, with their pain dismissed as “emotional,” “psychogenic” and therefore “not real.” A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine discovered that when women report their pain, they are more likely to be dismissed than men. Gendered stereotypes that cast women as more “sensitive” and “dramatic” causes their pain to be taken less seriously. The result is that period pain is not treated with the gravity that it ought to be, whether in clinics and hospitals or in larger society.

The culture of menstrual cramps as taboo and women's pain as hysterical has further led to an institutionalized stigma around this issue. The public sphere has historically been structured such that menstruation, and its accompanying pain, is erased. In the workplace, schedules and business hours are set up in such a way that ignores the reality of the menstrual cycle, whether it is that menstruating individuals are given the same amount of medical leave as non-menstruating persons, or that the same amount of productivity is expected of a person whether they are on their period or not.  It is the same way with the school environment.

Society privileges the non-menstruating experience as the norm. It does not accommodate the needs of people with periods, some of whom need to take time off monthly to recover from what can often be crippling pain.

The burden then falls on people with periods to “just deal with it”, or to personally suffer the consequences of missing work or school.

Having menstrual cramps affect your work performance, whether indirectly or openly, can create an impression of being “whiny” or “unprofessional,” as in one woman’s story of being chastised by her company’s HR department for mentioning her period cramps. This can make already stressful and anxiety inducing work environments way more treacherous (for help dealing with workplace stress and anxiety see this and this). Having institutions ignore the reality of period cramps creates policies that disadvantage people with periods, and makes it difficult for them to advance in the workplace. menstrual cycle and menstrual cramps So what can we do?

Institutionally, it is up to schools, companies, and governments to start taking periods seriously.

The pain that accompanies period cramps is very real for those who suffer them. We cannot keep ignoring its significance just because it is a regular, monthly occurrence.

In fact, it is for this exact reason - that it is so common and recurring - that we should address this issue. Some organizations are bravely innovating to accommodate for this. For example, the UK company Coexist and the Indian company Culture Machine allow their employees to take paid time off to deal with the pain of period cramps. Coexist has even instilled this idea into their expectations about their employees’ work schedules, recognizing that during a person’s period they need to rest and nourish themselves, but that the time immediately after the cycle ends is when they are most productive. Many countries have implemented menstrual leave, such as Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Zambia; could Singapore be next?

As individuals, we can also start changing the toxic culture around period cramps by having open and honest conversations about periods. If you are someone who menstruates, you can do this by:

  • Bringing the topic of menstruation up in relevant conversations, or addressing the fact that you are on your period and suffering from cramps, in an effort to normalize this “taboo” subject.
  • Being straightforward about the extent of your menstrual pain, as well as the ways in which you or others can help you feel better.
  • Being patient and kind to yourself in acknowledging when your body needs time to rest and recover.

If you are a person who does not have periods, you can do your part by:

  • Remembering that empathy and understanding is key.
  • Treating menstruation as something that is just as natural as any other bodily function.
  • Not reacting negatively to someone mentioning their period, because by doing so you would be actively contributing to the culture that punishes people with periods for simply existing.
  • Recognizing that there are a range of individual differences in experience of menstrual cramps, so take the time to ask the person on their period how they would like to be supported by you.
  • (Also, providing warm water and chocolates will always get you bonus points.)

dealing with workplace stress and anxiety The bigger picture

The stigma surrounding period cramps is only a fraction of the larger problem of menstruation as taboo that holds people with periods back. In this conversation about period cramps and menstruation, we must not overlook the other very real and harmful implications, beyond discrimination against menstrual pain in the workplace and the medical profession. For example, the practice of chaupadi, or isolating girls and women with periods in huts, occurs in Nepal. During menstruation, they are considered “unclean” and thus are excluded not only from the public sphere but even from many aspects of the private sphere of family life.

Worldwide, the stigma around menstruation is harmful to those who experience periods. While this stigma manifests in different ways, be it in workplace discrimination or being pulled out of school, we all can play a role in tackling it and normalizing periods in order to work toward a greater vision of equality.

If you are someone that suffers from crippling period pain, you should find a doctor to come up with a personalized action plan. If you are in too much pain or discomfort to leave your home, or don't have time to leave the office, you can speak to a doctor online on RingMD from wherever you are (just click the button below). If you are in Singapore and need a medical certificate for your period pain, you can have a doctor appointment online using RingMD from the comfort of your own home.

Our world class online doctors can provide you with medical advice, and depending on where you are, they may also be able to write you a medical certificate and online prescription. You have a right to deal with your pain. We’re working to make sure everyone takes menstrual pain more seriously, and everyone gets the care they need.

Speak with a doctor online on RingMD. Why leave home to find a doctor if you don't have to? Avoid sick people in busy waiting rooms and skip the traffic jam. Can you have a doctor appointment online? Yes, consult a doctor online, right now! When appropriate, the doctor is able to provide you with a signed Medical Certificate (MC) if you need one for work or school reasons.  

We're also focusing on increasing access to mental health care. If you're thinking "I need a therapist near me" but dont know where to start, try the RingMD therapist directory. We will help you find the right therapist for YOU!