Is there a link between worsening fibromyalgia symptoms and period pain?
Today, Sarah Alexander-Georgeson talks about her battle with fibromyalgia and period pain, comorbid endometriosis, and 5 ways she distracts herself every month.
Ah, period pains. If you've never complained to a friend about your monthly aches and pains, consider yourself lucky!
We're taught from a young age that periods are painful. It's everywhere we look - in magazines, films, and all over social media. Thankfully, more women in the media and online are willing to talk about how much their monthly cycle affects them.
But, even with today's openness about menstrual cramps, most people have no idea what level of pain is normal and what's not. According to a study by the British Menopause Society, up to 80% of women experience period pain at one point in their lives.
On top of that, another 40% of women have premenstrual symptoms to deal with in the days before. These can include bloating, breast tenderness, mood swings, headaches, and tiredness.
In two surveys by YouGov, 42% of respondents said that period pain had affected their ability to do their jobs - yet only 27% had admitted it to their employer.
So, yes, periods = painful. But how do you know if the level of pain you're feeling is far too much?
Was my period more painful than it should be?
I heard my peers talk about their painful periods throughout my teens. It was such a hot topic that it almost became a competition on who had the worst cycle or cried the most.
My period was painful too, but how bad did it have to be before I needed to see my doctor? I wasn't new to pain. I'd spent my entire life dealing with almost constant discomfort, so I knew menstruating would only add to it.
What I didn't realise, however, was how much fibromyalgia and period pain would interfere with my daily life.
Fibromyalgia and period pain
When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about 15 years ago, I soon noticed how much worse I felt in the days leading up to my period. Four days before it arrives, the pain in my legs and abdomen become more and more intense.
Worse, my regular pain medication can stop working entirely, and I find myself tossing and turning, unable to get a good night's sleep. I've tried everything from using heat to natural remedies, but nothing helps with any level of consistency.
Related: How Fibromyalgia Affects My Daily Routine
But can fibromyalgia affect your period or vice versa?
Although fibromyalgia is estimated to affect 1 in 20 people in the UK, women are seven times more likely to be diagnosed than men.
According to research, hormones, or hormone imbalance, may play a part in fibromyalgia symptoms in females. Many women report worsening fibromyalgia symptoms during their periods, which could be due to hormone fluctuations during a cycle.
Steroid hormones, including testosterone, progesterone, and oestrogen, are usually at their lowest in the days before you're due a period. For many women, a high oestrogen level helps your brain release more endorphins, which will increase your pain threshold. This is great, but... when your oestrogen levels are lower, your body's natural coping strategies for dealing with pain are repressed.
Although no study has conclusively proved that fibromyalgia and hormone imbalances are linked, it's a theory that may explain the pain response I have every month.
Fibromyalgia and endometriosis
Unfortunately, while fibromyalgia and period pains are an issue, my endometriosis makes the discomfort even more difficult to manage. It's sometimes difficult to figure out which pain is coming from what condition, but they all impact my life.
Having fibromyalgia and endometriosis can be tough to handle. One often gets mistaken for another, while having both can cause severe, disruptive pain in different body parts.
In 2019, the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics published a paper on women with deep infiltrating endometriosis (DIE). Interestingly, they found that people with endometriosis had higher rates of fibromyalgia than in the rest of the study population.
There are still no answers to why those with endometriosis are more likely to have fibromyalgia. Still, it may have something to do with the immune system.
Whether fibromyalgia, endometriosis, or a combination are to blame for my monthly discomfort, my period also affects me in other ways. The lack of sleep I get during this time heightens my fatigue and brain fog. In turn, these issues cause stress, which then can trigger a headache or migraine.
Related: Brain Fog – A Frustrating Symptom of Fibromyalgia
As a chronic condition that impacts practically everything, my fibromyalgia gets worse during my period every month.
5 ways I distract myself every month
Since many traditional therapies don't help when I'm struggling with fibromyalgia and period pain, I use many distraction techniques. Here are 5 of my most useful ones:
1. Mindfulness and meditation
I find this really helps to focus my mind on something other than pain. Although I'm still aware of the struggle, I can take my mind elsewhere for a moment.
A good book will always transport me somewhere else. I can usually read as I snuggle up with my heat pad in bed, which always helps.
This is a new hobby, and I'm enjoying making embroidery hoops to decorate my home and for friends and family. It keeps me focused, and I love the creativity behind it.
I find writing down my feelings is really beneficial. I also really enjoy free-writing, as it keeps me in the moment. Free-writing has produced a lot of poems I didn't even know were in my head.
5. Calling a friend
This always cheers me up. I can get lost in the stories my friend tells me. Just listening to someone else who hasn't had to spend the day in bed, like me, is always good.
Related: 3 Tips for Living and Coping with Fibromyalgia
It depends on my symptoms that day
Yet, depending on fatigue levels, sometimes reading, embroidery or writing isn't feasible. I certainly can't hold down a conversation with "brain fog", so a phone call might be off the cards. It all depends on my specific symptoms that day, but I always try to find something that will help.
Though these distractions aren't "one size fits all", I'm glad that I've found some hobbies to take my mind off my fibromyalgia and period pain. Even if they only last for a few minutes.
What helps you to get through your monthly period? Reading, writing, or your favourite hobby? They all can help!
NPS-IE-NP-00314 September 2021