The Blog

Break the Cycle: Talk About Period Pain

When was the last time you heard someone at work complain about period pain? Not in gruesome detail, just "My stomach is hurting. It's period pain. Anyone got some painkillers?". If the answer is never, then it's time to question why not.

For one week every month, my bag becomes a miniature pharmacy, and thus, my armoury. If it accidentally tipped over, out would fly three types of painkiller and a couple of thick, white sanitary pads. My survival kit. 100% necessary. Without all of the above I'd be a bloody mess; literally and figuratively; writhing around on the floor in agony. I can't be choosy about floors either because period pain doesn't know pavement from sofa; public from private.

I heard that sharp intake of breath: yes, you read the words sanitary pads. Perhaps, an embarrassed grimace to accompany my reference to menstrual blood? Sanitary pads, blood, sanitary pads, blood, sanitary pads, blood. There. I'm chanting it. I'm daring to talk about a device made out of a bit of soft material and sticky tape. Those things that half the population of the world need to keep their flow in check, if I'm going to be street about it, or, need to absorb shredded uterus lining, if I'm going to be biological about it.

Of course, I'm being deliberately visceral. Daring? Certainly not in the true sense of the word. Clearly, I'm not exposing some kind of government scandal or denouncing a hitherto unspoken crime against humanity. But, I do believe we need to break an everyday taboo. People don't talk about period pain in the same way we talk about, say, flu, the common cold or migraines.

Period pain is a normal part of the menstrual cycle, but somehow not on a list of routine ailments that could, say, force you to call in sick to work. A lack of concrete figures on the numbers of women affected is all part of a cycle of tacit acceptance. The NHS Choices website states:

Some studies suggest up to 90% of menstruating women experience pain

and discomfort during their period.

But, goes on to say that it's:

...difficult to categorise period pain as it can affect every woman


Twitter tramples on that vagueness. The hashtag 'periodprobs' allows females an opportunity to share their misery: "There is a war inside my uterus" cries @stephaniebaby7, "I've got such a sore f***ing back id like to rip my hair out " screams @flaminbutera, "It feels like a monster is chewing on my insides" muses @no_im_not_fine and "It feels like my insides are getting punched and twisted, it hurts so f***ing bad" groans @McNugget_Derp. It's good that these women are sharing their pain; but let's assume they're doing it within the protection of a hashtag herd; a cosy, collective online identity that gives them the impetus to speak up. Transfer these quotes to real life, the workplace for example, and suddenly it's not so easy.

Gynaecologist Bruce Ramsay, also a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists told me:

For some people it's absolutely disabling. They need to take time off work... and literally just take to their beds.

But, how easy is it take that time off? His answer is disheartening. He told me that some of his patients, particularly those working in male-dominated environments, find it easy to get time off because their "boss doesn't want to hear about that kind of thing." They essentially get sent away in a flurry of red-faced 'you don't need to tell me this' embarrassment. The other scenario centres on the fact that women feel they can't raise the issue "because people will say you shouldn't be doing the job if you can't keep up."

One woman, whose pain was so severe she thought she had cancer, told me her experience at work with male colleagues was difficult, "All the men treated me like I was moaning about nothing." It turns out she had endometriosis, a condition that causes painful periods. When she tried to make doctors appointments she " a lot of tutting and sighing from male colleagues... I felt embarrassed as well, because of the nature of my illness."

When was the last time you heard someone at work complain about period pain? Not in gruesome detail, just "My stomach is hurting. It's period pain. Anyone got some painkillers?". If the answer is never, then it's time to question why not. I suffer with extremely painful periods and have never felt comfortable about going to a colleague and asking for some time out, or, in the worst instances going home. Part of it is down to the fact that I work in a television newsroom where deadlines dominate. There's no time to stop and I don't want to let my team down. But, a lot of it is down to the fact that I don't feel comfortable approaching the colleagues I'd need to confide in. They're all men. They happen to be brilliant, understanding men and I suspect many people would argue the inhibition is my own. But, that argument wilfully ignores a patriarchal system that has moulded women's perceptions of themselves and dictated what parts of our bodies we can discuss i.e. tits and sexy lingerie is permissible, granny pants and sanitary pads... not so much.

Let's be clear, period pain has you waking up in sweats in the middle of the night; it creeps upon you when you're walking to the shops to get some milk or stabs you in the gut when you're on the treadmill at the gym. It's the type of agonising hell that, in full pelt, has often propelled me to imagine taking my reproductive organs out and smashing them with a hammer #periodprobs

The stomach cramps, the back ache, the headache and the nausea are real symptoms of an everyday condition. So, why shy away from the phrase "period pain"? This isn't about meekly holding up a banner that whimpers "I'm a woman with womanly issues, please take pity on me and treat me differently". It's about empowering women to speak up when they're pushed to the limits of pain. The more we normalize the issue, the further away we can get from the idea that talking about periods is somehow an admission of weakness. My chat with the gynaecologist ended with an admission: suffering in silence is a shame. "People ought to be able to talk about it", he said.