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What Is Fibromyalgia & Can It Cause Painful Periods?
Why women are more likely to have fibromyalgia, and how the menstrual cycle plays a role
If you suffer from period pain, you’re not alone. Dysmenorrhea is common amongst people who menstruate, but if you suffer from a chronic illness like endometriosis or fibromyalgia, you may find that your periods are even more painful.
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia, also known as fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), or “fibro” for short, is a chronic condition that causes fatigue, pain and tenderness all over the body. Although it can affect anyone, women are seven times more likely to develop fibromyalgia.
Researchers aren’t sure why women have a higher risk of suffering from fibromyalgia than men, but it’s believed that reproductive hormones may play a role in both the frequency and severity of the condition.
The most common symptoms of fibromyalgia is chronic, wide-spread pain that is either felt all over the body or specific muscle groups (like your legs or back). Other symptoms include:
- Brain fog and cognitive difficulties
- Trouble sleeping
- Headaches, migraines and dizziness
- Painful and/or heavy periods
- Numbness or tingling in your hands and feet
- Restless leg syndrome
- Depression and anxiety
Women with fibromyalgia are often more likely to experience more widespread pain, morning fatigue, and IBS symptoms compared to men with fibromyalgia.
Women with fibromyalgia are also more likely to experience higher levels of depression compared to men.
Fibromyalgia is still poorly understood, so the exact cause is unknown. Scientists believe there may be a genetic component to fibromyalgia, but the main theory is that fibromyalgia is related to the way the central nervous system processes pain.
People with fibromyalgia may have a heightened sensitivity to pain signals in the brain, and therefore have a lower pain threshold and essentially experience pain in stronger ways compared to those who don’t have the condition.
This is believed to be caused by lower levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and endorphins, which play a very important role in pain management as your brain releases endorphins as a response to pain. Studies have shown that people with fibromyalgia often feel pain when people without fibromyalgia don’t.
In many cases fibromyalgia is also triggered by physical or emotional trauma caused by a stressful life event, injury, childbirth, or death of a loved one.
Fibromyalgia and periods
Many women report experiencing stronger symptoms of fibromyalgia during their period. This may be because of hormonal fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle.
Gender differences in pain response still aren’t fully understood due to a lack of research (you can blame the gender pain gap for that), but it’s believed that oestrogen (one of the main hormones involved in the menstrual cycle) affects women’s pain response.
When oestrogen levels are high, your brain releases more endorphins and to increase your pain threshold. On the other hand, when oestrogen levels are low (like when you’re on your period), your body’s natural pain response is inhibited.
Fibromyalgia diagnosis and treatment
Diagnosing and treating fibromyalgia can be a fairly long and frustrating process. Aside from being a bit of mystery, the symptoms of fibromyalgia mimic those of many other conditions.
Currently there is no definitive test for fibromyalgia and it’s very often misdiagnosed. Fibromyalgia is diagnosed by process of elimination, so your GP or healthcare provider will first rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms.
The diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia are
- severe pain in three to six different areas of your body, or milder pain in seven or more areas
- Persistent symptoms for at least three months
- no other reason for your symptoms has been found
Since the causes of fibromyalgia are unknown, treatment focuses on relieving individual symptoms – and as fibromyalgia causes several symptoms, there is no one single treatment that will work for all of them.
Treatment for fibromyalgia can involve a combination of medication to treat pain, along with lifestyle changes (such as regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and trying to reduce stress) and sometimes therapy.
Although complimentary or alternative therapies (such as acupuncture and massage) are not officially recognised as treatment for fibromyalgia, they can be used to help manage symptoms.