What you need to know about period pains and how you can alleviate them

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Period Pain affects up to 80% of women.
Period Pain affects up to 80% of women.
PeopleImages/Getty Images

Period pains can be debilitating.

Around 80% of people with a uterus experience period pain at some stage in their lifetime.

We spoke to a gynaecologist and a menstruation activist to find out how women can treat period pains when they come.

How to deal with period pain.

“Knowing your body is key when trying to treat period pains,” says gynecologist Dr Lunga Magaga.

“Women should take pain medication a day or two before their period starts."

He adds that medication is most effective when started one or two days before the onset of menses and continued through the first two to three days of bleeding.

“Menstrual pain is not a symptom of any underlying disorder but part of the normal menstruation process. Primary dysmenorrhoea (painful periods) usually peaks between 20-24 years of age.

“Symptoms include stomach cramps, backache, diarrhoea, fatigue, headache, oedema (fluid retention), nausea, vomiting and mood changes. These symptoms last for more or less three days.”

He explains that painful periods should not be confused with premenstrual syndrome, which presents with similar symptoms.

“Premenstrual syndrome symptoms resolve shortly after menstrual flow has begun, unlike dysmenorrhoea which continues for up to 72 hours.”

What should women do to alleviate pain?

“Rest,” he says. “Heat treatment (heat application to the lower abdomen and by drinking hot beverages). Exercise, especially low intensity exercise such as stretching or yoga.” 

Menstruation activist, Candice Chirwa agrees and adds ginger tea to the list.

Candice also advises parents to get as much information as they can so they can teach their kids.

“Parents should constantly be having conversations with their children about any puberty related questions.

“It is also important to be supportive of your child’s transition into adulthood,” she says.

“These emotional and social changes will show your child is forming their own identity, so in as much as your support is necessary, you also need to give your children the necessary space to navigate and develop their decision-making skills”.

She suggests using these conversations as an opportunity to talk about values.

“For example, if your girl child stains her bed sheets during her period you should positively tell her that it’s okay and she should be taught how to wash the bed sheets.

“When it comes to menstruation in particular, it is important to have ongoing conversations about health management. By that I mean discussing the different sanitary products,” she explains. “Talking about when to change the products, which medicine to use, and how to take care of themselves during their period.

“Parents should never feel ashamed to have these necessary and critical conversations. It’s important to reassure your children that this transition is an important and exciting life stage,” she says.

Finances and periods.

In many communities, talking about menstruation is taboo and Candice attributes a lot of that to finances.

“Many girls in South Africa can’t afford sanitary products and their parents may struggle financially too, so they don’t want to ask.

“On top of that, menstruation myths and beliefs are passed on from generation to generation around the world,” she says.

Different cultures or religions hold various practices and beliefs but overwhelmingly, menstruators are expected to manage their period in isolation, for no one to see.

“In urban settings, young girls are taught to hide their periods because it’s too embarrassing," Candice says.

“In our daily language, we use slang or colloquial terms to describe our period, such as Aunt Flow, the curse, and bloody Mary,” she says.

“Even when young girls are on their way to the bathroom, they feel the need to hide their tampons or pads in pockets, purses or in their sleeves because of how we’ve been conditioned.

“This social condition is disempowering. We shouldn’t have to feel ashamed of a natural, common bodily function.

“Young girls are expected to feel like something is wrong with them. Periods are normal and the period taboo has got to go,” she says.

The importance of menstrual health.

Dr Magaga says menstrual health also includes knowledge about vaginal cleaning.

“Although vaginal douching (washing or cleaning out the inside of the vagina ) is common for many women, there are no known confirmed health benefits,” he explains.

“This may undermine immune defences by altering the normal vaginal flora (bacteria that live in the vagina) and predisposing women to infections,” he warns.

Health problems linked to douching include bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, which is an infection in the reproductive organs that is often caused by sexually transmitted infections, vaginal irritation or dryness.

He adds that after giving birth, women can have lactational amenorrhea, also called postpartum infertility, which is the temporary postnatal infertility that occurs when a woman does not have her periods and is breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding delays the return of a mother’s ovulation (when the woman’s ovary releases an egg) and may make her infertile for six months or more.

“This is an easy tool for postpartum women to use to avoid a pregnancy if they meet the following criteria – menstrual bleeding has not resumed, the infant is exclusively or nearly exclusively breastfed day and night, and the infant is under six months of age. Women who meet all three criteria are not likely to become pregnant,” he says.

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