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Painful Period: It’s Not a Taboo Topic

Friday, August 19, 2016 3:36 PM

When a reporter asked Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui why she was crouching over and grimacing in pain after her Summer Games race, Ms. Fu explained that she was having serious period pain. And so began a firestorm on Twitter and in news outlets about a topic that has long been taboo for female athletes.


The attention to menstrual pain in general is refreshing and it’s a great chance to let people know about the best ways to evaluate and treat menstrual pain, also known as dysmenorrhea. Of course, very mild discomfort is a common symptom for women having regular hormonal cycles, but more intense pain that persists, may be helped by seeing a doctor.

Not all menstrual pain is the same, and any assertion by some reports that 'cramping' does not affect athletic performance does not account for how intense the pain can be for some young women. This can matter especially for elite female athletes like Ms. Fu, where winning a medal reflects differences between competitors measured in hundredths of seconds. Her particular distress also may reflect either inadequate treatment, or an unidentified cause of uterine cramps like endometriosis or fibroids.

Frank Tu, MD, MPH, Division Director of Gynecology at NorthShore, says that for some young women, this pain can be reduced or eliminated by taking birth control pills continuously without a monthly break to reduce pain and bleeding. Research suggests this is generally safe, although one out of five users may have unscheduled bleeding. Specific packaging of continuous contraceptives have been around for some time, and the levonorgestrel IUD also achieves this effect in up to half of users.

Clearly more attention is needed to study this common issue. Here are tips on how to deal with period pain during athletic events:

  • Take an over the counter anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen or naproxen regularly during that time, and make sure it’s the right dose. 
  • If the period pain is quite severe, it can be helpful to have a gynecologist evaluate you to see if continuous birth control pills or a hormonal IUD could reduce or eliminate your periods.

How do you train with the pain?