It’s Not All In Your Head: Periods Can Hurt As Bad As A Heart Attack

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Peopleimages / Getty Images

Anyone who has dealt with painful periods knows that it’s not just a matter of “Oh, I have a few cramps. I’ll just take a pill and get on with my day.” Nope. The pain associated with periods can be a full-body experience, replete with digestive upset (diarrhea, and even vomiting are common), backaches, headaches, and cramps that sometimes make us writhe on the floor in pain and render us unable to function.

Thankfully, some doctors are finally starting to recognize that period pain is a big freaking deal. Speaking with Quartz, John Guillebaud, professor of a reproductive health at University College London, described period pain as “almost as bad as having a heart attack.”

And as those words left his mouth, scores of women shouted, “FINALLY,” and “What the fuck took you so long?”

Menstrual cramps can be brutally painful. The pain is real, it’s not all “in our heads,” and we are not weak or whiny. It’s about damn time the medical world began taking women’s complaints seriously—because God knows we are very often ignored when it comes to seemingly forbidden subjects, such as what is happening in our uteruses and vaginas.

Frank Tu, who is the director of gynecological pain at NorthShore University HealthSystem, also spoke with Quartz on this subject, remarking that most physicians are taught that ibuprofen “should be good enough” and that women should just soldier on through their pain.

Really?! I mean, ibuprofen can certainly be helpful, but for those women who feel like their uterus is trying to kill them, an OTC pill or heating pad just isn’t going to cut it.

Now, obviously, not all women experience period pain akin to a heart attack, but I think we have all had at least a period or two where if felt like our uterus was attempting to strangle us from the inside. Just last month, after many months of “easy” periods, I had one that brought me to the knees of my bathroom floor—where I had to breathe and weep through each cramp.

And it turns out, I’m not alone. Painful periods (called “dysmenorrhea” in clinical terms) are much more common than people realize. According to American Family Physician, dysmenorrhea affects up to 20% of women, and is often so severe that it interrupts daily life. It affects younger women more frequently than older women, with many women saying that their symptoms get better as they get older.

There are two kinds of dysmenorrhea: primary dysmenorrhea and secondary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea refers to general severe period pain, but secondary dysmenorrhea refers to painful periods associated with pathological conditions, such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts.

Endometriosis (when uterine tissue grows in other parts of the pelvis and digestive system) in particular is a condition that produces extremely painful periods. According to Quartz, while endometriosis affects up to 10% of ovulating women, it is very rarely properly diagnosed. Sometimes it takes women up to 10 years to get a proper diagnosis—which, of course, means that treatment for the condition is also delayed.

All of this is why doctors really need to start taking women’s complaints of menstrual pain seriously. As Guillebaud tells Quartz, if things were reversed, and it was men feeling like their bodies were trying to torture them every single month, there sure as hell would be more options out there for remedying that pain.

“Men don’t get it and it hasn’t been given the centrality it should have. I do believe it’s something that should be taken care of, like anything else in medicine,” he said.

THANK YOU, doctor. And you can please relay that message to, ummm, almost every male physician in America?

Dr. Richard Legro, of Penn State College of Medicine, explains to Quartz that, while there are treatment options out there for women who experience painful periods due to conditions like endometriosis, there really need to be more treatment options out there—and that, in general, more research needs to be focused on the issue of painful periods.

Legro also recommends that we women step out and start talking about our experiences with painful periods, with the hope that this will help get things rolling in terms of research and treatment options. And we need to do this despite how taboo the subject feels to many of us. In fact, we need to talk about in order to make the subject less taboo.

“We live in a country that doesn’t really want to face those disorders because they make us think of sex and abortion and embryos and all those ‘bad’ things,” Legro tells Quartz. “We need to talk about it on Oprah and national TV. This is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a common disorder, and it shouldn’t be ignored.”

Well, that’s for damn sure.

Of course, the burden shouldn’t just be on us to talk about it. Doctors and healthcare providers need to listen to us—actively and with compassion. And they need to collaborate with us to come up with solutions that really address our needs, because “just pop an Advil” isn’t going to cut it when it feels like our uterus is literally on fire. Our pain deserves to be taken seriously.

This article was originally published on