Normalising Period Pain Silences Endometriosis

It always begins a week before my monthly period. My energy levels plummet, my tummy starts cramping up and I feel extremely bloated. Once my period arrives, the symptoms hit me like a truck. The stomach cramps get extremely intense, I feel nauseous, I burst out in cold sweat and if I’m really unlucky, I pass out. Despite my tear-filled eyes and various crouched fetal positions, my relatives would only recommend me to drink a bowl of hot soup, add two soft boiled eggs into my diet and to sleep it off. When inquiring my symptoms with friends, some would tell me that it was normal. I don’t blame them for being unaware of these abnormal symptoms because culturally, menstrual pain is seen as a normal side-effect of a period. With medical professionals prescribing painkillers readily for period pains, dysmenorrhea (period pain) is assumed to be a condition that is easily treatable and therefore, inconsequential. 

Thinking that this pain I felt every month was an inevitable consequence of being a woman, I started to doubt myself. Maybe I was just weak. Maybe I had a low tolerance for pain. These uncertain thoughts eventually turned into being ashamed of how weak I was. This further silenced my pain as I suffered in secret, behind closed doors, as I was afraid of coming across as whiny, dramatic or frail. Why did I still try to put on a facade of a strong and capable woman who could take on her monthly period without crumbling in a pool of cold sweat? Why did I think the only solution was to silence myself?

I only recently found out that menstrual pain could mean something more serious as I was looking up remedies for my cramping stomach. I came across endometriosis, an invisible condition. Endometriosis is a disorder where tissues grow outside the uterus and onto your ovaries, fallopian tubes and bowels. This results in very painful periods, pain during sex and could also cause infertility. Studies have shown that endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women but only gets diagnosed after an average of 7.5 years of chronic pain. But why does it take that long?

“Menstruation stigma is a form of misogyny. Negative taboos condition us to understand menstrual function as something to be hidden, something shameful. And by not naming a thing, we reinforce the idea that the thing should not be named.” - Clue

In many cultures, menstruation is seen as taboo as it is associated with impurity and evil spirits, which then creates a blanket of shame around this natural process. This school of thought is passed down through each generation only for women to continually hide their menstrual occurrences and pretend it does not exist. Unfortunately, this creates a lack of discourse surrounding menstruation, which could be detrimental to one’s health. With censorship on the menstrual dialogue, women lack awareness of their own bodies and may overlook early warning signs of endometriosis. Therefore, period abnormalities are ignored because of the stigma surrounding menstruation. 

Another possible reason why endometriosis takes so long to get diagnosed could be that women themselves do not come forward with their chronic pain because of this dangerous idea of honour. In society, women who give birth naturally without painkillers are seen as extraordinary superhumans while women who opt for anaesthesia are looked down upon and their value as a woman is undermined. This further extends to painful periods where some cultures (speaking from experience) disallow women from taking painkillers as withstanding the pain the “natural” way establishes you as a capable woman ready for childbirth. Society has created this idea of an ideal woman who goes through agonising experiences without using synthetic remedies but news flash, this is completely delusional and unrealistic. By only perceiving “natural” women as honourable, this problematises how women deal with pain. In an attempt to portray themselves as “natural”, chronic pain then gets ignored for years.  

Another social phenomenon that affects women is the gender pain gap. This disturbing bias has shown that the medical industry does not take women’s pain as seriously as men’s. A study reflected how men wait an average of 49 minutes to receive painkillers for abdominal pain in an emergency department while women wait 65 minutes for the same thing. Why is a woman’s pain sidelined compared to a man? Unfortunately, the stereotype of women being “soft” and “fragile” has affected them medically as their pain is perceived as “being dramatic” or “overly sensitive”. With these negative connotations, medical professionals have unknowingly downplayed women’s pain as their pain is not taken on objective or rational terms but rather, over-exaggerated. With these doubts surrounding women’s pain, it is no wonder that endometriosis remains hidden. 

I’m sure many of us have been suffering from dysmenorrhea for years and have undoubtedly accepted it as a part of our lives. However, it’s time we start having conversations about period pains with our parents and friends to expand the discourse, eliminate prejudices and recognise endometriosis as a legitimate medical condition. The liberation of period stigma could be a start to tackling these neglected health issues. Speak up and end the normalisation of period pains!