Why Our Healthcare System is Not Doing Enough for PMS

A little background for my personal connection to this topic: I’ve had a couple of fainting spells in my life, one culminating in minor injuries due to falling against a refrigerator. While there were a couple of spells that could be easily explained (standing for long hours, the sight of blood, heat exhaustion, etc.), there were a couple that had no identifiable cause. Once, I almost fainted sitting down (which if you ask me, is a talent). So, my pediatrician recommended that I go see a cardiologist, just to be on the safe side and to make sure that it wasn’t an issue with my heart. When I was there, the doctor mentioned that abdominal cramps are the leading cause of fainting. As someone who already gets moderate PMS symptoms every month, it didn’t take much to put two and two together.

 

The thing is, I inexplicably fainted for the first time when I was 13 years old, and I didn’t see that cardiologist until I was 18. That’s five years of me telling others, “Yeah, sometimes I faint but I wake up pretty fast so if it happens it's fairly normal for me.” As a menstruating girl, nobody thought premenstrual/menstrual cramps were the reason I passed out. And even stranger, I didn’t think to get treatment for managing my symptoms after discovering this for another year. Many people who menstruate are told that period pains, no matter how severe, are just what we have to deal with and that we can “get over it.” In one study, 77.5% of women thought PMS needed to be discussed more often, yet 49.4% did not treat their own PMS. It seems like a cultural norm that we need to be enduring incredibly severe period pain before it is considered abnormal. Even then, PMS is not taken seriously enough, leading to many misdiagnoses and delays in treatment.

I finally received treatment when I went on birth control for my hormonal acne, and I was anxious to see if it would also help my period cramps, bleeding, and period irregularity. And it did! But replacing those symptoms, I got recurring headaches and sudden bouts of depression so strong that they initially blindsided me. Like most people, I didn’t think someone could feel that down because of hormone fluctuations (which, by the way, research has not found sufficient evidence proving hormones are the explanation for PMS, even though that is the common narrative). Wasn’t birth control supposed to lessen premenstrual symptoms? Turns out, it’s not that straight forward, and we do not have enough research being funded for these issues. For perspective, even though only 19% of men experience erectile dysfunction and 90% of women experience PMS, studies on erectile dysfunction outnumber studies on PMS by five to one. And no offense, but PMS disrupts a person’s life and can be far more debilitating than erectile dysfunction; if roughly half of the global population menstruates, then there really is no excuse to why we are not dedicating more funding to menstrual symptoms.

 

I am not the only one I know this has happened to, and my situation is far tamer than other instances of disappointment in healthcare. Along with sexism, racism also comes into play, and there is a growing awareness of the discrimination black women face in healthcare. Black women experience increasing danger when it comes to sexual and reproductive health; this includes: maternal mortality, infant mortality, and sexually transmitted infections--and this is controlled for class. Sometimes, the situation is due to lack of research and education, but in these cases, the women’s complaints of pain and discomfort are often ignored due to years of healthcare training that discount these patients on account of racism and sexism.

 

This is why it is extremely important for women to speak up when there is something going on that does not feel right. It is time to stop downplaying our pain and settling for less. Unfortunately, until research is better funded for looking into the complexities of PMS, the most important thing you can do is make sure you are advocating for your own health. If you are having significant side effects of a medication you take, bring it up with your doctor. If you feel like your pain is not taken seriously, you can get a second opinion. And for God’s sake, if you faint randomly and you don’t even know why, please see a doctor and try to figure out what you can do to make life easier.