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This post was written by Folabomi Oladosu, PhD., who is a post-doctoral research fellow in NorthShore’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Her PhD is in Neurobiology.
If you're reading this, you or someone you know experiences horrible, cramping period pain. Despite its lingering taboo, painful periods, clinically known as dysmenorrhea, are common – about 50 percent of women suffer from this painful condition, resulting in missed days at school or work and an overall reduction in one’s quality of life.
Recently, NorthShore University HealthSystem researchers published a study in Scientific Reports on this topic. We found that painful periods are not trivial monthly occurrences, but are rather intense biological episodes that have a clear influence on a woman’s cardiovascular health and well-being.
“Early attention to pain evolution is essential if we are to transform current, antiquated tertiary care models in chronic pain management,” said NorthShore researcher Kevin Hellman, PhD.
Hellman and Gynecologist Frank Tu, MD have extensively researched why painful periods also put women at risk for developing chronic pelvic pain. While clinical research shows that the two conditions are related, the question as to why intermittent period pain changes to long-lasting pelvic pain remain unanswered.
Their latest research found intriguing commonalities between women with both conditions: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and a reduction in a measure of bodily well-being called heart rate variability.
As the name suggests, heart rate variability (HRV) is the specific changes in time (or variability) between sequential heartbeats. Although the phrase is cumbersome to say three times fast, HRV is straightforward and convenient to measure. Many popular fitness trackers and smartwatches can collect HRV data throughout the day.
HRV is considered a measure of well-being because it tells us if our bodies are in or out of sync. High HRV means that our body is adaptable to environmental stressors – the body knows when to “rest and digest” or when to “fight or take flight”. In contrast, low HRV means that the body is unusually primed for a “fight or take flight” state, even in the absence of stress.
Low HRV is associated with chronic pelvic pain conditions such as bladder pain syndrome (BPS). Knowing this and given that painful periods and BPS are frequently diagnosed together, Drs. Tu and Hellman sought to compare HRV in women with these two conditions. When participants were not on their period, the research team collected heart rate, blood pressure, and HRV data in women with painful periods, with BPS, and in healthy controls.
When compared to healthy controls, women with painful periods had a higher resting heart rate, higher systolic blood pressure, and lower HRV- even though they were not on their period. Women with BPS had the highest heart rate, the highest blood pressure, and the lowest HRV of the three groups.
What factors could be responsible for observed changes in women with painful periods? Anxiety was considered the most likely contributor – after all, stress and anxiety go hand in hand. Surprisingly, anxiety and other psychological factors were not associated with an increased heart rate. A factor that was connected to increased heart rate, however, was period pain ratings. This suggests that a woman’s heart rate was more likely to be higher if she had more intense painful periods.
Our timely research from the Gynecological Research Lab (the GyRL) demonstrates that, like women with BPS, women with painful periods also have increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and low HRV. These findings indicate that repeated bouts of painful periods may have an adverse effect on a woman’s body, even when it’s not that time of the month. Additionally, the study suggests that HRV may be a link in explaining why painful periods are a risk factor for developing chronic pelvic pain.
Our research suggests that it’s best to manage painful periods. Please contact your primary care physician or gynecologist to get help with unmanaged period pain.