Why are periods the worst? Even when they're normal, they're a major buzzkill. And when they're not normal, well, it's just unfair. The good news is that an abnormal period is not always a cause for concern. A heavy flow or a longer period one month shouldn't necessarily send you running to the doctor.
"Slight changes in the menstrual cycle are normal and do not require medical attention," says Lakeisha Richardson, an OB/GYN in Greenville, Missouri. Anything from new medications to changes in your diet to varying activity levels and weight could result cause some variations in your period.
So, when is it time to ring the abnormal period alarm with your gynecologist? According to Richardson, prolonged bleeding (longer than a week) and excessive flow are the two most common signs that something is up. While they could be caused by something minor like changes in birth control, they could also be signs of fibroids, polyps or endometriosis.
In even more serious cases, excessive bleeding could also be the result of infection or cancer. "If someone is having a heavy flow the entire duration of their period, they should see their doctor," Richardson says. "Normally, you will have one to three days with a heavy flow, and then it should decrease."
So, let's talk about pain. It's normal to be in pain that time of the month, right? Well, not always. You shouldn't be too quick to write off your discomfort as "girl problems" because severe pain could mean endometriosis or fibroids. Drawing the line between normal period pains and abnormal ones comes down to answering this question: Does the pain affect your quality of life?
"If menstrual cramps respond to over-the-counter medications and you can continue with your daily activities, then the cramping is normal. However, if menstrual cramps confine you to the bed for several days and you miss school or work, then it is abnormal," explains Richardson. In other words, if your body is saying, "This sucks, but I'm still gonna go to the movies," you're probably fine. But if it's saying, "This must be what death feels like," better call the doc, who can tell you if everything is OK or not.
There's also stress level to consider. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of all women say they've laid awake at night in the past month due to stress. And women are 8 percent more likely than men to report high levels of stress.
As if lying awake in bed in the wee hours of the morning isn't enough, stress can also take a toll on our menstrual cycles thanks to those little things called hormones. "When the body is stressed, it produces excess hormones such as cortisol," explains Richardson. This can result in irregular, missed and even heavy periods.
Bottom line: While your period woes could be a simple matter of managing stress better or evaluating your diet and exercise, listen to your body. If something sets off an alarm, it's better to take the time to go get it checked out. And definitely don't be afraid to get a second opinion.
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